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O-Bon - Lantern Festival, Festival of Souls

        O-Bon (spelled with or without the hyphen) is an ancient and enduring event occurring once a year during mid summer, the purpose of which is to celebrate and honor one's ancestors. The belief is that during the time of OBon, the spirits of ancestors make a return to this world to visit with their relatives. Therefore, everyone makes an effort to return to their hometowns to be with family, both living and spiritual, during this time. The originating story is that a Buddhist monk called Mokuren had a vision following his mother's death that her soul was not in peace because of the life she lived on earth. He asked his Guru how he could help his mother, and was told to perform good deeds in his life and town to balance out his mother's bad ones.  Mokuren followed the Guru’s advice, and upon realizing that his mother's soul was finally at peace following the performance of his good deeds, he began to dance in joy and relief. This is now known as the Bon dance, or Bon Odori.

        While Obon customs can vary greatly from region to region, the overall pattern is similar. Similar to Oshogatsu (New Year), houses are cleaned and dusted. Lanterns are hung outside in front of houses so as to guide the spirits, and Obon dances, called Bon Odoroi, are performed from small towns to large cities. Graves are visited and ritually cleaned. Food offerings of fruits and vegetables, flowers and Chochin lanterns are placed in home altars, and at the temples. At the start of the 3-day time of OBon, chochin lanterns are lit inside houses. People then go to the family graves and call their ancestors' spirits back home; this is known as mukae-bon. The last day of Obon is called okuri-bon, when families guide their ancestor's spirits back to the grave, with a chochin painted with the family crest. Senko incense is often burned both in homes and at the cemeteries throughout the time of OBon. Floating lanterns called Toro nagashi is a tradition at the end of the Obon observance, where people send off their ancestors' spirits with the lanterns placed in rivers, lakes and streams. There may also be a bonfire, called okuri-bi, helping to send the spirits back to their world.

        Bon Odori (folk dance) is widely practiced on the nights of Obon. The styles of the dances vary from region to region, but Taiko drums are ubiquitous to keep dance rhythms in tempo. Neighborhood and local Bon Odori are generally held in parks, gardens, shrines and temples. Dancers usually wear the lightweight cotton summer kimono called yukata. The dances are performed around a yagura (tower) stage. Everyone is invited to participate so those not familiar just join in and follow along.

        Obon is another event that is caught between the lunar and modern calendar. Traditionally from ancient times, it has been marked from the 13th to 15th days  of the 7th month of the year - using the modern calendar, this makes it July. However, interpreted from the lunar calendar, the 7th month roughly coincides more with August rather than July. In many areas of Japan, Obon is still observed in mid August, while in others it is celebrated in mid July.

        Similar to New Year celebrations, the Obon week in mid August is a major event in Japan, where everyone makes an ultimate effort to return to their homelands. Technically not a national holiday but nevertheless a deeply traditional event, most everyone schedules vacation time from employment so as to be able to travel home for Obon, thus many business do close during this period. Travel and traffic congestion is major, resulting in the usual impact one would expect upon the system.

Resources: japan-guide.com; jnto.org; web-japan.org; japanvisitor.com


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