The Obon (sometimes called Bon) festival is a traditional three-day festival in Japan where people honor and remember their deceased relatives while celebrating life. Many Japanese believe that the spirits of their ancestors return to visit them on the first day of the festival and leave again on the final day. The festival is also spookily nicknamed ‘Ghost Festival’.
Instead of a mournful, somber time, the holiday is enjoyed as a celebration of life and many people join in with traditional dance called the Bon-Odori. Originally a Nunbutsu folk dance, the Bon-Odori welcomes the spirits of the dead and each region of Japan has alternative interpretations set to slightly different music.
Although styles may vary throughout the country, a typical Bon-Odori takes place with a circle of dancers positioned around a high platform called a yagura which holds the musicians and singers. Facing the yagura, the dancers (who range from young boys to elderly women) move either clockwise or counter-clockwise in uniform, sometimes armed with paper fans.
Families hang paper toro-nagashi lanterns outside their houses to guide their ancestors back home. At the end of the festival, the lanterns are released onto rivers, lakes or the ocean to drift away. Fireworks are often then lit to scare away and lingering spirits and to encourage them to return to the afterlife.
Although the festival isn’t a national holiday, because of the family-centric nature of the festival, many Japanese people take their holidays during this time and return to their home towns. This makes the middle of August one of the busiest travel periods in the Land of the Rising sun.
If you’d like to plan a vacation to Japan, be sure to get in touch with one of our Japanese Travel Specialists who will be delighted to share their intricate knowledge of the Land of the Rising Sun with you!