• Life & Culture

Japan’s Season for Family and Festivals: Obon

japanese summer cold somen noodles

The Obon season

Mid-August means the obon (お盆) season in Japan is about to get underway. Obon is a period in August for Buddhist ceremonies venerating a family’s ancestors. Many consider that the spirits of the ancestors return to be with their families during obon. While some of the obon events are religious others are more like big neighborhood parties. This sharing of space between the sacred and secular is common in Japan. You can read more about religion in Japan on our blog. 

The exact timing of obon can vary from place to place and Buddhist sect to Buddhist sect. Most regions celebrate obon from August 13 to 16, but some regions hold observances in July. Obon is not a national holiday but many businesses will give their employees special leave. The school summer holidays are also in August so many families travel back to their hometowns for vacation. Trains, planes and highways fill to beyond capacity with people traveling. The shinkansen (bullet train) operates at 120% capacity – standing room only – and 30 kilometer-long traffic jams are common!

butsudan shrine in Japanese home

What activities do families do?

The obon first ceremony is setting out lanterns or small welcoming fires (known as mukaebi (迎火) to welcome the spirits of the ancestors back home. The family alter, or butsudan (仏壇) is decorated and small servings of the foods or drink set out daily as offerings. Many families also say evening prayers. During the day people will visit the graveyard to clean the family grave. Each grave has a special place for candles, incense, flowers and more offerings.

bon odori group in Japan

But there is also plenty of time for fun. There are lots of activities to keep everyone occupied during obon. Chief among these is another major obon event – the bon-odori (盆踊り) or obon dance. This is a festival event ranging in size from a small gathering organized by a community to a huge tourist draw. Bon-odori are usually held in the evening when it is cool. The dancing part will center around a grandstand decorated with streamers and lanterns. Many dances feature taiko (太鼓), the large Japanese drum, accompanying the dancers wearing yukata. The bon-odori melody is very distinctive, but you will also hear pop songs in the mix. Any song that matches the rhythm of the bon-odori will work. You can learn more about bon-odori here.

At its heart the bon-odori as a kind of carnival. Vendors set up stalls to sell food, trinkets, and run carnival games. It’s also a chance for people to reconnect with old classmates who have also traveled home for obon. There may also be fireworks to help round out the evening.

karaage booth Japan

At the end of the three days the spirits are sent off in a final observance called okuribu (送火). Small fires are again lit to help light the way back to the afterlife. The special decorations on the family butsudan will are packed away and obon quietly draws to a close. Families will head back to the cities with many looking forward to the next big holiday that will bring them together – New Years.

For more information about living in Japan and working as an Interac ALT, click here.