What Is Obon? A Look into This Buddhist Japanese Holiday

The Obon festival goes by many names like Bon Odori, Bon festival, Obon Week, etc. While it’s known by many names, they all represent the same event – a Japanese festival/custom that helps pay tribute to the spirits of ancestors. This Buddhist festival occurs annually around August 13-15, based on the lunar calendar.

Below, we explore what makes Obon celebrations around Japan so unique.

What Is the Obon Festival?

During Bon Odori festivals, Japanese people believe their ancestors come back in spirit form to visit their relatives. Lanterns are hung at the front of each home to help guide these spirits back. During Obon festivals, Bon Odori dances occur along with the beat of Japanese taiko drums.

Those celebrating the festival will visit the graves of their loved ones and will provide food offerings at either the temple or an altar in the home for "hungry ghosts." At the end of the festival, floating lanterns are sent off in bodies of water to help guide the spirits back.

Why Is Obon Celebrated in Japan?

The celebration of Obon has been occurring in Japan for around 500 years. The history of this festival is largely based on a Buddhist myth. According to this myth, one of Buddha's disciples used his powers to check on his mother, who had passed away.

He saw her declining in the underworld of suffering, also known as the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. Buddha instructed him to provide offerings to Buddhist monks on the 15th day of the seventh month. This offering allowed Buddha's disciple (Maha Maudgalyayana) to free his mother, causing him to dance joyfully. Thus, creating the Obon festival.

Is Obon a National Holiday in Japan?

Obon is surprisingly not an official holiday or a public holiday. However, that doesn't stop people in Japan from taking off work to participate in the festivities and traditions of Obon. Obon festivals are quite popular, causing public transportation to become heavily trafficked as people travel to their hometowns to celebrate.

This festival is celebrated widely throughout the country, with each region celebrating it slightly differently. Even the festival dates vary depending on whether the area uses a solar or lunar calendar.

For example, the Gujo Odori Festival in the Gifu Prefecture focuses on dance performances until 5 am every morning for a week. There is also the Hokkai Bon Odori, a smaller, more tradition-minded festival in Japan.

What Do They Eat During Oban?

Street foods are a popular choice when celebrating Oban. You'll see foods like okonomiyaki, aka savory pancakes topped with Japanese mayo, and a sweeter okonomiyaki sauce. You'll also likely see takoyaki, fried octopus balls, and yakitori, seasoned chicken skewers.

Other festival foods include dango, sweet rice flour dumplings, and uji-kintoki, a shaved ice sweet treat.

How to Bring Japanese Culture into Your Home

If you can't make it to Japan in person for a Bon festival, you can easily explore Japan and its culture by recreating traditional cuisine in your home. Wa-Gokoro's subscription boxes feature authentic products, making creating Japanese recipes in your own home easy. Each month, you receive over eight products and recipe cards with easily accessible ingredients.

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