Japanese culture is filled with many traditions and rituals, and one of my favorites, Obon happens in August. Obon is a three day period (an officially undeclared national holiday) where it is believed that spirits of ancestors return to the family’s home alter.  As respect for ones ancestors and the aged is supreme in Japan, the entire country picks up to travel back to their family home to honor ancestral history and celebrate with family.  During this period there is also a festival, (Obon Matsuri,) where the Japanese perform a dance (Bon Odori) that welcomes and celebrates the returning spirits.

Traditionally the Obon Matsuri will be held in a neighborhood park. My first experience to see one was right after I had arrived in Kobe. That summer evening I was biking over to the home of a new friend and came upon an Obon Matsuri. The entire park was decorated with paper lanterns strung up and hanging from tree branch to tree branch. Everyone was dressed in a Yukata or cotton kimono and of course carrying or waving the much needed paper fan. The Bon Odori varies both in dance and music from one region to another but generally all dancers form a circle, performing the same dance sequence in unison around a structure in the middle where the musicians and singers perform.  As summertime in Japan is quite hot, often watermelon along with cold beer, soft drinks and other traditional foods are sold, and depending on the location of the festival there might be a carnival ride and games to play as well.

On the last day, the festival ends with Toro Nagashi; the floating of paper lanterns down a river or stream which symbolizes the return of the spirits to the world of the dead.  It is one of the most beautiful and touching part of this August ritual and reinforces the respect the Japanese have for family, family history and Japanese culture.  Of course, a festival wouldn’t be a festival in Japan without fireworks to top it all off and Japanese fireworks are truly the best in the world!

I’ve seen and attended many Obon Matsuri by now and yet they never lose their magic and I always look forward to the next one. So next time you’re in Japan in August, treat yourself to something special, the lovely tradition and rituals of Obon.


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