I’m spending my second summer in Japan, which means I get my second 9 day long vacation in August. The vacation is due to Obon, a national holiday celebrated throughout Japan. I was told that it is a holiday to celebrate family members who have passed and that many people travel to visit their family. I was also told it was like the American Halloween. These are two very different descriptions… So I decided to do some research!
According to Wikipedia, Obon is a time to honor ancestors of family members who have passed on. People travel to see their family and clean their deceased family members’ graves. Families keep altars of loved ones in their homes and during Obon the deceased family members’ spirits return to those altars. The holiday has been celebrated in Japan for more than 500 years.
As with many religious holidays (in not only Buddhism, but any religion: Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism) there is a legend to accompany the tradition. Here is what Wikipedia posted:
“Bon Odori originates from the story of Maha Maudgalyayana (Mokuren), a disciple of the Buddha, who used his supernatural powers to look upon his deceased mother. He discovered she had fallen into the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and was suffering. Greatly disturbed, he went to the Buddha and asked how he could release his mother from this realm. Buddha instructed him to make offerings to the many Buddhist monks who had just completed their summer retreat, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month. The disciple did this and, thus, saw his mother’s release. He also began to see the true nature of her past unselfishness and the many sacrifices that she had made for him. The disciple, happy because of his mother’s release and grateful for his mother’s kindness, danced with joy. From this dance of joy comes Bon Odori or “Bon Dance”, a time in which ancestors and their sacrifices are remembered and appreciated.”
Many people celebrate Obon privately with their families, but there are a number of festivals. I’ve posted some photos and videos I’ve stumbled upon. I can’t take credit for any of them, but they are cool to see!
Daimonji in Kyoto
Fires in the shapes of characters are lit on the mountains around Kyoto. The fires are to signify the end of Obon and to send the spirits of ancestors back to the spirit world.
Credit: Paco Alcantara
Lake Shinji, Matsue
Lanterns are released onto Lake Shinji to signify the ancestors’ return to the spirit realm.
Photo Credit: James Jack
I’ll be traveling east to Tokyo, Nikko and Fuji-san during Obon and hopefully I’ll run into an Obon celebration or two. I’ll be sure to post about them if I do!