Obon is a summer festival in which people show their respect for people who have passed away. It is a time when many families gather together to honor, via a series of rituals, the spirits of their deceased relatives. Obon, a highly localized celebration, is feted at different times in different areas in Japan. Generally, it is held during the three day period between August 13th – 16th, but in Tokyo it is held around July 15th; in some other areas it is the 15th day of the seventh lunar calendar (not the calendar we currently use), so the day changes every year.
During Obon, the souls of the departed are allowed to return to this worldly realm and are welcomed by their families. While many homes have altars where they give daily offerings and prayers, special attention is paid at Obon time. To welcome back the departed souls, houses are often cleaned rigorously from top to bottom, and special food for the occasion is placed out. Lanterns are lit in the homes, and sometimes small welcome fires are lit by the entrance to the houses to guide the spirits inside. On the last day of Obon, lanterns and fires are also lit, but this time the purpose is to wish the spirits a safe return home, and to give thanks for their visit.
Another custom is called toro nagashi, meaning the floating of lanterns. This is usually observed on the last day of the festival, and it consists of illuminating small lanterns made of paper and floating them down rivers to symbolize the spirits’ return to the world beyond. The sight of candle-lit white paper lanterns floating en masse is truly a breathtaking sight.
Not all festivities associated with Obon are so solemn! Bon Odori is a type of dancing performed at this time, and it can differ greatly in different areas of Japan in the style of dancing, music and even props. While the styles might vary, it is almost always boisterous and fun-filled.
Obon is not a national holiday, but it is a deeply ingrained family custom for many people, and is often a time when people choose to take their summer vacation.