The Bon (盆) or Obon (お盆) Festival, also known as Urabon (盂蘭盆), is a Buddhist observance to honour the spirits of ancestors. It is traditionally observed from 13 to 15 July in the Kantō and Tōhoku area (Shichigatsu Bon, Obon in July) and from 13-15 August (Hachigatsu Bon, Obon in August) in most other regions. The differences in the starting date can be traced back to the beginning of the Meiji era when the lunar calendar was replaced with the Gregorian calendar and municipalities and prefectures adopted either Shichigatsu Bon, Hachigatsu Bon or Kyū Bon (Old Obon) which takes place on the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month and is observed mainly in Okinawa, Chūgoku, Shikoku, and some parts of northern Kantō. The Obon holidays are not public holidays, but it is a season when many people take off, and companies close for work holidays.

obon-festival.jpg

Photo credit: Miki Yoshihito - CC BY

History and origin


The word urabon is said to be a Chinese-Japanese rendering of the Sanskrit ullambana (उल्लम्बन), a memorial ceremony to rescue the souls of the dead from the tortures of hell. The Japanese transliteration is 于蘭盆會 or 盂蘭盆會 (urabon-e). According to the Bussetsu urabonkyō sutra, ullambana began with the efforts of Mokuren (目犍連), one of Buddha's closest disciples known as Maudgalyāyana, to rescue his mother who was suffering in purgatory. Buddha instructed Mokuren to devote himself completely to ascetic practice from the 16th day of the fourth month to the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar. On the last day, he made lavish offerings of food and drink to the assembled monks and priests, and his mother was saved.

In China, the festival was observed from the early sixth century CE, while in Japan it was first recorded in 657. Starting as a court ritual in the Nara and Heian periods, it soon became a popular custom observed by commoners, too. It is often claimed that the Buddhist concept of ullambana merged with the native Japanese tradition of welcoming ancestral spirits in summer to become the Obon Festival as it is known today.

Celebration


During Obon, a Shōryōdana (精霊棚, "spirit altar") is placed in front of the Butsudan (仏壇, the Buddhist family altar) to welcome the spirits of the ancestors. Sometimes, a priest is invited to read the Obon sutra (棚経 tanagyō). The preparations for the Obon festival used to start several days before the event. The seventh day of July is known as Tanabata, or nanoka bon (七日盆, "seventh-day bon"); on this day, the gravesites and, in some areas, the path from the grave to the house (盆未知 bonmichi) are cleaned to ease the ancestors' return trip. The habit of visiting and cleaning the grave is called ohakamairi (御墓参り).

Lanterns and strips of white cloth are placed along the bonmichi to guide the souls. Another custom is to prepare horses or oxen made of cucumber and aubergines and place them in front of the porch or the altar to symbolically offer transportation to the spirits. Shōryō-uma (精霊馬), horses made of cucumbers, express the wish for the spirits to quickly reunite with their families, while shōryō-ushi (精霊牛) are oxen made of aubergines and represent the hope for the souls to return slowly. Flowers called bon-bama (盆花) are offered on the tomb or the spirit altar. Other offerings on the altar include vegetables, rice dumplings, fruits, and noodles. These offerings are known as ozen (お膳). In families where a death has occurred since the previous Obon often lanterns are offered instead of food and flowers.

shoryouma.jpg

Shōryō-ushi (精霊牛) and shōryō-uma (精霊馬); photo credit: soumania

On 13 July (or August), welcoming fires (迎え火 mukaebi) are lit, while on the 16th the spirits are sent off with another ceremonial fire, the okuribi (送り火). The most spectacular send-off fire is the Gozan no Okuribi (五山送り火) in Kyōto, also known as Daimonji (大文字).

daimonji.jpg

Photo credit: rmurdey - CC BY-NC

Bon odori


Bon odori (盆踊り), or Bon dances, are dances performed annually either in the middle of July or August. They are part of the Obon festival and have their roots in odori nembutsu (念仏踊り), popular Buddhist chants and folk dances of the late Heian and the Kamakura periods. Bon odori was first mentioned in the literature of the late 15th century. At the beginning of the Edo period (1600-1868), the dances had turned into a custom observed throughout Japan and characterised by local variations. Still popular in modern days, they have lost their religious meaning. Varying from prefecture to prefecture, bon odori is usually performed by large groups of men, women and children and accompanied by singing, hand-clapping, drums, gongs, and flutes. As varied as the dance itself are the costumes which are commonly based on the cotton summer kimono, the yukata (浴衣) and different types of straw hats.

awaodori.jpg

Awa odori; photo credit: lau-chan - CC BY-NC

The dancers often move in circles around the musicians or around a yagura, a platform that is set up on an open space. In Nishimonai, Akita Prefecture, the dancers' faces are covered by their straw hats, a custom that suggests the ancient belief that the dead have returned to mingle with the living. Other famous Bon odori are the Awa Dance in Tokushima and the Tsurusaki Odori of Ōita Prefecture. Nowadays, bon odori in summer resorts and urban areas have turned into entertainment-like spectacles for tourists and locals alike.

References:

  • Frédéric, Louis, Japan Encyclopedia, Harvard University Press 2002

Videos:

Awa Odori



Nishimonai Bon Odori



Shiraishi Bon dance



Tokyo bon odori