The Obon festival (お盆)

During the Obon festival, we make an altar called a “Bon-dana” to welcome the spirits of our ancestors. We enshrine Ihai (ancestral tablets) in the center of the shelf. We offer a light offered to a god or Buddha, incense sticks, fresh flowers, dumplings, somen noodles, and seasonal vegetables and fruits on the shelf. We decorate with lanterns, which are called Bon Chochin, and rotating Chochins with designs, on either side of the shelf. This painting is an example of one such “Bon-dana”. Obon events and customs depend on the region they live in and the religious sect they follow.

The Obon festival is formally known as the Urabon-e festival. Urabon is a phonetic transcription of the Sanskrit word “uravanna,” which means suffering as if hung upside down (the suffering of hell). And it represents a legend about Mokuren, one of Buddha’s disciples. The legend is that when Mokuren learns that his dead mother is being hanged upside down in hell, he asks Buddha how to save her. It is said that the current custom of Obon started because Buddha’s teaching was to make offerings on the 15th day of the 7th month (lunar calendar).

Nowadays, the middle day of the Obon Festival is August 15th according to the new calendar, and the four days from August 13th to 16th are used as the Obon Festival in many places. Obon vacations for stores and companies often refer to about three to four days of this period. And they can be as long as a week vacation, including weekends. We have a custom of welcoming and spending time with the spirits of our ancestors during Obon, just as we do at New Year’s.

In general, the welcoming fire is lit on the 13th, the beginning of the Obon Festival, to welcome the ancestors, and the sending fire is lit on the 16th, the end of the Obon Festival, to send them back to the other world. People make and decorate a Bon-dana and on the 14th and 15th, they often make three offerings of the same meal as the family on it. These are called “Butsuzen,” and are served in a special set of bowls and plates. It is also said that sharing the offerings of Obon with your ancestors is a way to make offerings to them. And it is also important to clean the graves and Buddhist altars in advance of Obon.

Cucumber horses and eggplant cows with toothpicks and split chopsticks as legs are famous as Obon decorations. They are called “Shoryo-uma” (Spirit horse) to wish for the quick return of the ancestors, and “Shoryo-ushi” (Spirit cow) to wish for a slow return to the other world. Both are made to use them to resemble vehicles for our ancestors to travel between this world and the other. 

Bon Chochins, like welcoming and sending fires, are prepared to be a landmark for the ancestors to return to their hometowns without getting lost. There are Chochins (hanging paper lanterns) that are hung from the top and Anndons (Japanese-style lampstands) that are placed on the floor. Because the color and shape of the hozuki (ground cherry) remind people of Chochin (lanterns), a hozuki is displayed as lanterns for the spirits.

Obon events held in various parts of Japan today are customs that have been handed down from generation to generation by a fusion of ancient agricultural rituals, Sorei Shinko (the worship of ancestors), and Buddha. For example, there are sending bonfires, welcoming bonfires, Bon dances, Shoryo Nagashi (floating lanterns carrying the spirits of the dead), fireworks displays, summer festivals, and so on. And there are many differences between them depending on the region and sect. In this sense, there is no rule that says this is the absolutely correct way to welcome Obon. In ordinary households, families and relatives gather to welcome the spirits of their ancestors and make offerings to thank them for making them who they are today.