Say middle of August in Japan and it means just one thing: Obon.
The Japanese may well be workaholics who rarely take long holidays but it’s still customary to take a week off work at both New York and Obon. Though more and more people who live in the big cities no longer celebrate Obon properly, instead using the time for a “summer holiday”, Obon was originally a festival intermingled with the folk beliefs unique to Japan. There are always lots of things to decide and do. We’re going to make it easier for you on PingMag with our “Obon For Dummies” guide!
Obon has already started!
But just what is Obon? In the simplest possible terms, it’s a time for welcoming in the spirits of your ancestors and then they take their leave. Sometimes, though, it’s not only the spirits of your ancestors but certain types of sprites. So in the end, Obon is basically a festival where you welcome into your home things that do not exist in the world of the living. It is similar in this way to Halloween in America or the Day of the Dead in Mexico.
In Tokyo it is generally presumed that Obon is on August 15th, though that date in fact came about after the switch to the western Gregorian calendar and by the old lunar one, Obon was on July 15th. And this day alone wasn’t Obon — it was said to start on July 1st. Even Tanabata, which takes place all over Japan on July 7th, was actually originally a part of Obon. Well, it depends then on which calendar you use but either way, Obon has already started and lasts from either around July or August 1st until 15th.
First prepare to welcome the spirits
The first thing you should do at Obon is prepare to welcome the spirits home. According to the old calendar, the gateway to the underworld opens on July 1st, making it the day when once a year the worlds of the living and the dead are connected. Obon starts from this day but you still have some time until the spirits arrive. You should prepare your home and clean the grave so that they don’t get angry at your bad hospitality.
The particulars vary per Buddhist denomination, but people set up a shoryodana, a special decorative altar for the spirits. It is usually a small shelf or desk with tablet and flowers, with lanterns all around.
The Vehicles of the Dead
The spirits that come at Obon don’t arrive on motorbikes. Don’t forget to prepare everything so that the spirits can come and go efficiently.
Recently some innovative people have been preparing really incredible vehicles.
With your preparations all done, it’s high time to welcome the spirits home again. On the evening of the 13th you should go to the family grave and then guide the spirits back to the house. The visitors may get lost so you light a mukaebi, a fire at the entrance to your home that burns straw or hemp. After inviting the spirits into your home from this day you should welcome them by decorating the altar with the offerings and food.
As you might have guessed, the grand finale to Obon is the Bon Odori dance. There are various theories about this but the most accepted is the one that says the dance is for welcoming and then sending back the visitors. During Obon the world of the living is visited not only by ancestral spirits but also lots of malevolent ones. The Bon Odori is thus a dance to ensure all the spirits are properly sent back.
And so the once-a-year Bon festival draws to an end. The final thing to do is send off the spirits. Just as fires were used to welcome them, okuribi fires are lit to signal saying farewell to the visitors. It varies per region; some places are known for the floating paper lantern ceremony called toro nagashi that creates an eerie spectacle. Though we don’t know how much time will go by in the afterlife, see you next year!
Obon is the one time a year when Japan, the “country without religion”, gets truly spiritual. Saying that, it’s not about the gods or Buddha but ultimately welcoming in the spirits of those who have gone before us, such as your grandparents and great-grandparents. It’s a romantic festival, then, allowing you to be reunited even with those who have sadly passed away. And though many of us no longer do it properly anymore, this year of all years let’s give it a try.