Summer is Obon (お盆) season in Japan. But what is Obon? What do people do? Why do people do it? In this post, I want to talk extensively about one of my most favorite of Japanese celebrations.
Why do I like Obon so much? Well, there are many reasons. For one, it bears resemblance to a couple of holidays with which I'm already familiar. I'm fascinated by the traditions surrounding the holiday. I'm also allured by the rich music and dance tradition of Obon.
Obon is the Japanese tradition of honoring the dead. Similar to the western holiday of Halloween, and the Mexican holiday of "Dia de Los Muertos" (Day of the Dead), it is believed that the spirits of the dead visit the land of the living. For Obon, there is much that is done to revere the spirits of ancestors, and often, the spirits of the dead in general.
During this time, it is a custom for Japanese people to return to their hometowns to gather with their families. Obon is such an important holiday, that most companies give employees the time off to return to their hometowns and participate in the festivities and ancestral rites.
Because Obon is such a busy season, prices for travel tends to be through the roof at this time of year. If you're planning to leave the country during the summer, it's best to book way ahead in advance, otherwise you'll be out of luck unless you pay an arm and a leg.
The first time I ever heard of Obon was when I watched the movie The Karate Kid II. Actually, this movie was like a gateway for me into Japanese culture. It fascinated me the idea that the community would get together for a festival and dance together to traditional music. At that time I had no idea what the holiday entailed, but I wanted to learn more. And the more I found out, the more fascinated by Obon I was!
But before I get into the festivities of Obon, I think it's proper for readers to understand the origins of Obon first. What exactly is it? How did it start? What are people celebrating? Why?
The word “Obon” is an abbreviation of the word “Urabon’e” ( 盂蘭盆会), which in turn is an adaptation of the Sanskrit word “Ullambana,” which means “hanging upside down.” In older Buddhist tradition, hanging upside down implies great suffering. The Obon festival originates from a story in the Ullambana Sutra, which tells of a disciple of Shakyamuni Buddha, named Maudgalyayana, or Mokuren (目連) in Japanese.
Mokuren was said to have had supernatural powers that allowed him to look into other realms, which he used to investigate the whereabouts of his deceased mother. He was dismayed to find his mother in the Realm of Hungry Ghosts (餓鬼道, gakido), suspended upside down and starving for food.
"Ullambana" means "suffering, hanging upside down."
In Buddhist tradition, it is believed that people who were stingy
and greedy in life, would be reborn in the Realm of Hungry Ghosts.
Using his powers, Mokuren tried to bring food to his mother, but anything he brought for her would burst into flames as soon as it was brought to her mouth. His mother would catch fire, and upon trying to dowse her with water, the water would turn into oil, aggravating the situation.
Mokuren, trying to feed his hungry mother.
Distressed, Mokuren went to Shakyamuni for guidance on how he could relieve his mother from suffering. Mokuren learned that his mother was in the Realm of Hungry Ghosts because she was greedy and stingy in life, and that the way to save her was for him to do the opposite of what she did on earth. Shakyamuni told Mokuren to make food offerings to the Buddhist monks that gathered for their retreat for the rainy season. During that time, Buddhist monks would gather in one location for the rainy season to avoid killing the creatures that would crawl about. The last day of their retreat was on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, which was Mokuren’s chance to atone for his mother’s transgressions.
Mokuren offered much food to the numerous priests as instructed. Before the last priests had left, he asked them to grant him a small portion of the food he had just offered. He used his powers to bring this food to his mother in the world of hunger. Miraculously, this food did not turn to fire, and for the first time in ages, Mokuren's mother was able to put food in her mouth and eat it. In this way, Mokuren was able to relieve his mother from the suffering of hunger.
The Ullambana Sutra teaches that the spirits of one's ancestors benefit from one's good deeds, and by contrast, suffer for evil deeds. Accordingly, through Mokuren's atonement, and through the continuance of his good deeds, it is taught that his mother was eventually able to escape the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and attain enlightenment. Thus, Obon is a holiday that serves as a reminder of the importance filial piety. (親孝行, oyakoko)
The Obon festival traditionally lasts for three days, centering on the fifteenth day of the seventh month. On the eve of the festival, a special altar is erected in front of the Butsudan (仏壇, Buddhist alcove, or altar) on which offerings are made to the spirits who are said to be visiting.
A believer tending to the family grave.
A believer praying at the family grave.
It is said that the spirits need light to guide them in the dark, so lanterns are lit and fires are burnt so that they may arrive safely. This is called "mukaebi" ( 迎え火, lit. welcome fire).
Typical welcome fire (迎え火, mukaebi)
Not all Buddhist sects do this, but in some traditions, it is customary to feed all the ghosts who visit the land of the living. Rites are held to feed the souls of hungry ghosts foraging for food called "segaki" (施餓鬼). Food and water is left out as an offering for spirits who have no one to tend to them, or hungry ghosts looking for food.
Don't be stingy; give willingly to those who do not have to eat or drink,
or you may one day become a hungry ghost yourself.
The last day of Obon is a very sad one, as this is when believers bid farewell to the spirits of their ancestors. In the evening, lanterns and fires are lit once again to provide a guiding light for the spirits back to the land of the dead, called "okuribi" (送り火, lit. send-off fire). In some traditions, lanterns are set afloat on a nearby river.
Lanterns set afloat on the water provide a guiding light to spirits
In Kyoto, large bonfires are burnt on the sides of five hills in the form of pictures and Chinese characters in an event called "Daimonji-yaki" ( 大文字 焼き, lit. the burning of large characters).
Daimonji-yaki in Kyoto
After the Bon Dance, families hold closing ceremonies. They light fires or candles to bid farewell to the spirits. Buddhist altars are cleaned and lanterns and decorations are put away. Families part separate ways, and the festival is over, until next year.
When is Obon?
Like Tanabata, and other traditional holidays, dates for Obon vary from region to region, due to the introduction of the Gregorian calendar. Traditionally, Obon centers around “the fifteenth day of the seventh month,” however this was in reference to the older lunar calendar, which can lag behind the Gregorian calendar by about a month. So some regions celebrate Obon on the fifteenth of July ( 七月盆, shichigatsu-bon), as July is the seventh month of the year, and others celebrate Obon on the fifteenth of August ( 八月盆, hachigatsu-bon) in order to bring the celebration closer to the lunar date. Still, others keep track of the older lunar calendar, and celebrate Obon accordingly (旧盆, kyu-bon, lit. “old bon”).
It is said that when Mokuren was finally able to see his mother successfully enjoy a morsel of food, he was so overjoyed that he began to dance. This dance of joy and gratefulness is supposed to be the origin of the bon dance, or “Bon Odori” in Japanese, and bon dances are held every year all over Japan as part of the celebration of Obon. Nowadays,however, the original religious meaning of the bon dance has faded, and it has become nothing more than a dance associated with summer.
The bon dance is one of the most beautiful traditions of the Japanese culture. It is a tradition that varies greatly from region to region. For most bon dances, participants join in a dance around a scaffold called a “yagura” (櫓), which is erected at a central location, such as a Buddhist temple, a park, or a school, from where musicians perform the music for the dance.
In most bon dances, people dance around a yagura
In some regions, however, troupes of dancers parade through the streets accompanied by musicians, or by music broadcast over a PA system. Bon odori participants often wear “yukata” (浴衣), which is a thin kimono traditionally used in the summer, adding to the atmosphere of the season.
Women performing "Hanagasa Odori" (花笠踊り, lit. "Flower Hat Dance")
This song and dance are particular to Yamagata Prefecture.
This song and dance are particular to Yamagata Prefecture.
河内音頭: Kawachi Ondo
Traditionally, the bon dance is performed to a local folk tune, which, along with the accompanying dance, describes the trade, geography and/or history of the region. In recent times, however, new music has been adopted for bon dance accompaniment, including late enka hits, and new music written specifically for bon dancing. Even non-traditional music is starting to make the bon dance scene, such as music from Japanese anime and western pop. In Osaka, the bon dance is accompanied by the song "Kawachi Ondo," which originates from Yao City. The name of the song derives from an older administrative division in modern-day Osaka, known as "Kawachi."
Kawachi Ondo is a living, fluid folk music tradition. Though there are sets of lyrics that have been handed down for generations, the form of Kawachi Ondo is such that new lyrics can always be written, or improvised on the spot. The song is used to tell epic tales, usually about historic people, lore, geography, even the yakuza. Expert singers that devote themselves to Kawachi Ondo even use the song to talk about current events, or sing words directly from a newspaper. The instruments used to perform Kawachi Ondo are always a taiko drum (太鼓) and the shamisen (三味線), though modern instruments such as electric guitars and bases are also used nowadays.
The shamisen (left) is a Japanese three-stringed lute, while
the taiko (right) is a Japanese drum beaten with sticks called "bachi."
The form of the song also lends itself to newer, modern styles, such as jazz or reggae, and in this sense, the song is in constant evolution.
A video of me singing a version of Kawachi Ondo
Reggae-style Kawachi Ondo. Check it out!
Reggae-style Kawachi Ondo. Check it out!
Goshu Ondo (江州音頭)
The song that accompanies the bon dance in most regions in Osaka is Kawachi Ondo. However, a long time ago, a different song from Shiga Prefecture was imported, called “Goshu Ondo,” named for an older name for Shiga Prefecture (江州, Goshu). It is said that Kawachi Ondo is actually derived from Goshu Ondo. For these reasons, Kawachi Ondo and Goshu Ondo are often played together at bon dances all over Osaka, and Kawachi Ondo musicians are often skilled in them both.
An example of Goshu Ondo. Enjoy!
Yao City Kawachi Ondo Festival
Every year, Yao City holds the Kawachi Ondo Festival to commemorate the city as the birthplace of the song. A grand-scale, all-day Bon Odori is held, where expert singers, their bands, and dancing troupes from all around Japan show off their skills and style. Come the summer season, I'm always on the look out for bon dance venues, and I keep an ear out for Kawachi Ondo.
Tanabata: Japanese Star Festival