This past week was a special time in the Japanese calendar. Obon is one of the two times during the year when a family gathers together from all over the country. It’s not just the immediate family that gathers together. Cousins, uncles, brothers and sisters from all over Japan travel to be with their families. Everyone exchanges memories and laughs and drinks together. But it’s not just the living that gather! Those who have passed away also come to celebrate.
The Japanese believe that during this period their ancestors come back from the dead to be with their families.
On the first day of Obon the family heads out to the graves of their ancestors and light a candle from a flame that burns at the graveyard. This candle holds the soul of their ancestors. They carry this flame back home and light a candle on the prayer alter or butsudan as they call it. The butsudan is decorated with plenty of fruits and delicious foods for the ancestors to eat and plenty of flowers for them to enjoy while they’re visiting. Sometimes there are toys for children, cigarettes or alcohol for adults and other things the deceased person might have liked if they were still alive.
We knelt in front of the alter and sounded the singing bell to announce our presence then we brought our hands together and silently greeted the ancestors. Some family members talk to their ancestors telling them whats been happening with the family and welcoming them back home.
On the altar there was a cow made from an eggplant with two chopsticks broken in half and pushed into the eggplant to make legs and a horse made from a cucumber in the same way. The horse is meant to carry the ancestors speedily from the grave to the house and the cow carries them slowly back to the grave.
On September 16th, when the holiday is over, the family will take the candle that holds their ancestors soul back to the grave. The family brings the flowers and the food and the horse and cow to the grave site and leaves them on the graves although some families burn them.
The holiday finishes with an Obon dance to see the spirits off to their graves.
During this time we’re not allowed to kill any bugs since the ancestors might be borrowing their eyes or ears to visit the family.
Many Japanese families don’t observe Obon nowadays. sometimes they don’t even have time to gather together since they’re so busy with work.
Still other parts of Japan observe obon during different times. Okinawa for example celebrates Old Obon during August. And they even have a special dance that’s a little different than that of the mainland.
They use traditional instruments like the shamisen and conch shells during the dance and there is a special character called the chombara who represents the bad spirits. He plays tricks on the children watching and tries to woo the gieps watching the dance.
If you’re ever in Japan during August take the time to watch how people celebrate this unique part of the Japanese tradition.