Obon Festival in Japan

by Nicholas Amrit Rajalal

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on the Embassy of Japan in Trinidad and Tobago official website in August 2020 for their JET Programme series. Here is the original link to the article.

Last week I had the pleasure of experiencing the Obon festival with two separate Japanese families. The Obon festival usually takes place from August 13th – 16th every year here in Oita Prefecture. During the festival I visited the family tomb and helped clean it, this was because the spirit of the departed members of the family would visit the tomb during this time so we made sure that the bushes were trimmed and there were fresh flowers in the vases. I was told that at the beginning of Obon, families would visit their family’s tomb to pray and “pick up” the spirits of their departed loved ones so that they could go home with them.

There would be a religious prayer that would take place at the family home during this time, a monk would usually visit the homes and say a prayer which would last for about 10-15 minutes. There were different sects of Buddhists monks so the style of the prayer ceremonies would be slightly different, but the main goal was the same, to pray and pay respects to the ancestors.

It is believed that on the 15th a fire is burned in the early morning so that the spirit of the ancestors can follow the smoke trail and arrive riding on a cucumber which is extremely fast, they want to arrive quickly because they are anxious to see their loved ones. On the 16th, another fire is burned but this time in the evening time because this smoke trail guides the spirits of the ancestors back to heaven, they would now travel back on an eggplant because they want to leave very slowly, spending as much time with their families as they possibly can.

During the Obon festival there is normally a Bon Odori, which is basically a fair type atmosphere where there is a special dance performed to celebrate this period, it is sometimes said that you are dancing with your ancestors when you perform this dance. Last year, I got the opportunity to dance at the Tsurusaki Odori, but due to the current situation, all Odori festivals have been cancelled this year. From my experience, after practicing the dance about three times prior, we all got into yukatas which are casual forms of the kimono and danced in unison in a clockwise direction around the festival grounds. This is an exciting atmosphere, where they sell food and drinks, this was where I had my first mochi (Japanese rice cake) in japan. After the dance performance there is usually a huge fireworks display.

One of the reasons I came to Japan was because I was very interested in experiencing the culture and festivals here, so it was a great pleasure for me to be invited by these Japanese families, they invited me into their homes where I got to have a very authentic Obon experience, and for that I am grateful.

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