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Ultimate Guide to Obon Japan

By Yuki Kobayashi Purwanto | April, 2022

What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you think about summer in Japan? Is it the burning heat or is it the summer festivals? Well for those of you who don't know, aside from the burning temperature and humidity, Japan is also well-known for its festivals during summer. If you have yet to experience what summer in Japan is like, you will be surprised to find out that it may be very different from your country. The images that most people have in mind for summer in Japan are fireworks, celebrations, and food. One of the most interesting and unique summer holidays is the Obon Japan. 

Obon in Japan is one of the most important holidays and festivals with a considerably more significance and unique history. This is where Japanese people spend a peaceful period of time called “Obon” at the beginning of summer, a traditional Japanese event to honor the spirits of families and ancestors who have passed away. Luckily for you, this guide will help you to go over all there is to know about this particular festival in Japan, from its origins to its customs and regional peculiarities.

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    Obon holiday japan

    What is Obon Japan and why is it important?

    Obon (お盆) is a Japanese annual holiday during which the souls of families and ancestors return to this world. This Buddhist festival consists of a three-day festival that honors ancestral spirits and pays respect to the dead. Obon grew out of Buddhist customs while also incorporating elements from Shinto, a folk religion native to Japan and many people visit their family cemeteries to commemorate the spirits of their ancestors and loved ones during this time.

    Aside from Obon, you might also be familiar with the Setsubun (節分) aka (the Bean Throwing Festival) is a time to herald in the warmer months with light-hearted festivities and rituals centered around- you guessed it- beans!

    How did Obon in Japan start?

    Obon culture began in Japan around the early seventh century as part of a ceremonial ritual held at the royal court by Emperor Suiko. It became popular among common inhabitants during the Edo era (1603–1868) as a special festival to commemorate the spirits of their ancestors by burning candles or praying in front of their Buddhist altar at home. Until now, many families will gather, pay respects to their ancestors' graves, and make food offerings at altars and temples. Many fires will also be lit at the doorways of households to lead the ancestor spirits back to their homes.

    Though the festival is over 500 years old, its origin isn’t straightforward. The ritual of welcoming deceased ancestors’ spirits into the home is believed to have come from India. After spreading through China and South Asia, it eventually arrived in Japan. 

    In the original story, a disciple of Buddha uses his supernatural powers to talk to his deceased mother. He found his mother in the ‘Realm of Hungry Ghosts.” In Buddhism, this term refers to any supernatural being that has an insatiable hunger for a particular thing. Learning this news, the disciple became distressed. He talked to the Buddha about how to best free his mother from this fate. 

    Buddha told the disciple to prepare offerings for monks to free his mother from her fate. In Japanese, the term ‘Obon’ is a translation of a Sanskrit word that means ‘to hang upside down.’ This isn’t meant literally. Instead, it’s a way to imply the pain and suffering of spirits.

    As such, the entire goal of the Obon festival is to free ancestors from their pain in the spirit realm.

    When and where does the Obon festival in Japan take place?

    The Obon festival is a significant part of Japanese culture and is celebrated in a variety of ways that vary from area to region and from family to family in Japan. Some families visit and clean their ancestors' graves, as well as present offerings to ancestors to ease their journey into the spiritual realm. Fires, including bonfires and lanterns, are frequently used to lead the spirits. There are also traditional festival dances called Bon Odori and other traditional music. Folk dances and traditional taiko drums and music, for example, can be used to greet and celebrate the deceased. There is also a gift-giving time known as ochugen (お中元) among Japanese companies.

    The purpose of this Obon festival is to show gratitude, and the value of the gift is reflective of the gratitude you wish to show though it is important to remember that the gesture means more than the gift itself. 

    The dates on which Obon is celebrated may vary in different regions of Japan depending on whether communities use a solar or lunar calendar to mark specific holidays. Japan used to keep track of time based on a lunar calendar, they switched to the more common Gregorian calendar at the beginning of the Meiji era. Most regions celebrate Obon from August 13th to 15th, while some regions hold the festival in July.

    Obon Japan
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    When is Obon Japan in 2022?

    In 2022, Obon in Japan will take place from August 13th until August 15th. The busiest days will be the 1st day of Obon (13th Aug), followed by the last two days of Obon (14th & 15th Aug) when people will be returning home. You can check out the dates every year for Obon on this website.

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    Who typically celebrates Obon holidays?

    You might wonder who typically celebrates the Obon festival? This event honors one's ancestors and is historically observed by Japanese citizens. This event is significant in Japanese culture because it connects Buddhism with Shintoism. 

    Having said that, Obon is also observed in other regions of the world. Anyone who identifies with Buddhism, Shintoism, or Japanese culture can practice it. With the rising Japanese population across the world, local organizations often have their own Obon celebrations.

    During what is known as Obon season, there are celebrations across North America, Asia, and other regions of the world. Despite the fact that this is a Buddhist celebration, anybody who wishes to commemorate their ancestors is invited to attend. 

    It's worth noting that many of these rituals and customers have been borrowed from Chinese customs. As a result, you'll find many comparable celebrations throughout China and throughout Asia. Obon is a unique Japanese celebration that draws on the East's rich traditions.

    Obon summer festival Japan

    How is Obon festival different from other summer festivals in Japan?

    Since Obon is known as a period to honor and pay respects to their ancestors, have you ever wondered how Japanese people deal with death and superstition? For those of you who don't know, Japanese people are quite superstitious when it comes to death, especially during earlier times. They believe that their ancestors' spirits can offer them good luck and long life because they can whisper favors to the gods for their current family. This is why it is important for Japanese families to continuously honor and commemorate their loved ones who have already passed away. This is their means of introducing deceased family members to the younger generations of their family. It is a way of “ensuring” the continuity of the lineage of the family.

    If you are interested in learning more about summer festivals and superstitions in Japan, you can go check out our Ultimate Guide to Japanese Superstitions and Ultimate Guide to Summer Festivals.

    What do I wear to Obon festival?

    Since the Obon festival takes place at the peak of summer in Japan, it is better to wear cool and comfortable clothes! A yukata, a casual cotton counterpart of the traditional Japanese kimono, will be worn by some ladies. Whatever you wear to a Bon Odori, make sure it is big enough for you to move around freely. If you’re interested in learning more about the different kinds of traditional Japanese clothing, check out this Ultimate Guide to Japanese Yukata vs Kimono

    Japanese yukata during Obon

    How Do Japanese people prepare for the Obon holiday in Japan?

    To honor their deceased family members, many Japanese families: 

    • Clean their houses
    • Visit ancestral cemeteries
    • Purchase or make lanterns
    • Arrange flowers for the departed 

    Japanese people believe that towards the end of the commemoration, ancestor spirits are summoned from the afterlife and returned to their world. These ghosts are reported to ride a horse from the hereafter to the afterlife and then ride a cow back to the afterlife so that they might return home swiftly and depart slowly. In honor of their journey, cucumbers (that resemble horses), eggplants (that resemble cows), and disposable chopsticks are used to make figurines displayed in the home.

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    How else are the “dead” celebrated in Japan?

    During Obon in Japan, it is important to pay respect to one's forefathers and mothers. In Japan, the deceased are regarded with great respect, which stems from Japanese burial customs. At home, at temples, and at gravesites, memorial ceremonies commemorating the departed are presented. Here are some of the most prominent ways the deceased in Japan celebrate throughout the year.

    Butsudan (仏壇)

    A butsudan is a family altar in Japanese culture. These are Buddhist altars, often known as "god-shelves," that are usually seen in homes on Kamidana altars. While there are memorial plaques for ancestors, they also pay homage to Buddhist divinities. 

    These altars are routinely used throughout the year. Candles and incense are burned, and flowers are provided on a regular basis as a symbol of respect. Though Buddhists have worshiped the deceased for thousands of years, it wasn't until the 17th century that they became popular in houses. A smaller, simpler form of a butsudan may now be found in modern Japanese households.

    Cremation

    The Japanese also follow a strict protocol when it comes to honoring the recently dead. To honor individuals who have just departed through a cremation and funeral ceremony, it is necessary to complete a step-by-step process. The corpse is washed and readied for cremation, and the family makes every effort to commemorate their loved one along the route. 

    The departed is given a new Buddhist name for the afterlife at the Japanese funeral rite. The family arranges flowers around the deceased before he or she is cremated. The family frequently stands outside the crematory watching the corpse enter and then return after the funeral to pick through the ashes. Each stage of the procedure is methodically carried out, and the family must take their time.

    The urn is delivered to the family for safekeeping at the conclusion of the procedure. They may put it on an altar at home, at a temple, or split it among family members. Outsiders may find these customs extravagant, yet they let Japanese people connect with their ancestors.

    Death anniversary

    Death anniversaries are another way the Japanese pay tribute to their ancestors. Even after the funeral, it is necessary in many cultures to honor deceased loved ones. These rites are performed seven days, 49 days, and 100 days following a family member's death in Japan. During these periods, purification rites are held to honor the dead and keep their spirits alive. 

    Offerings are also made at family altars at this time. Families frequently pay visits to loved ones' graves, bringing things to place at the cemetery. In the Buddhist afterlife, these tiny deeds are said to bring wealth.

    grave visit during Obon holiday

    How can I pay my respects at a grave site?

    Have you ever wondered what occurs when people in Japan go to the cemetery during Obon? Every culture has its own customs and rituals when it comes to dying and honoring ancestors, so it's no surprise that Japan has its own rituals and customs when it comes to visiting the graves of relatives and other loved ones. 

    In Japan, visiting graves at a cemetery are known as Ohaka Mairi (お墓参り) literally "grave visit". The grave is a hallowed space where the ashes of many generations of ancestors and descendants are placed. 

    Cleaning the grave

    The families that go to the cemetery are usually the ones who clean the graves. They carry a bucket and a dipper with them and pour water on the family gravestone's body. They often bring gardening equipment to take care of weeds and grasses that have grown on and around the cemetery. A bucket and dipper may normally be borrowed at the flower shops right outside the cemetery and returned after usage if they are not carried from home.

    Incense and Flowers

    Both incense and flowers are used as an offer for the deceased. Incense has long been a part of Japanese culture, and it can be seen in a number of places, like this one. On the front of each gravestone, there is a specific platform for both incense and flowers. The family arranges the flowers inside before placing the lit incense bundle in its stand. They might either bring flowers and incense themselves or purchase them from flower shops. In certain cases, the family will also bring food to share. Sometimes, people also take it home to keep birds from congregating at the graves.

    Prayer

    After the family has finished cleaning and giving, they will now pray. Everyone in the family joins their hands in prayer and thanksgiving to their forefathers and mothers. Some families also bring Ojuzu (お数珠), Buddhist prayer beads to pray with, which they wrap around their hands.

    What traditional activities do families do during Obon Japan?

    The Obon festival is a three-day ceremony and each day, it has a different process and ceremony. Many families also pray in the evening. People would visit the graveyard during the day to tidy the family burial. Candles, incense, flowers, and gifts are placed in designated areas on each tomb.

    Day 1: Mukaebi (迎火)

    Obon begins with the so-called mukaebi (welcoming fires) ceremony, in which individuals light a small bonfire in front of their homes to guide spirits back home. The early preparation stage also includes decorating the deceased's altar with miniature memory tablets, fruits, flowers, and Japanese sweets, a technique utilized to provide late loved ones things they cherished during their existence. 

    While horses and cows made of cucumbers and eggplants with wooden sticks for legs are generally used in rural areas these days, certain regions would create horses and cows made of cucumbers and eggplants with wooden sticks for legs. The meaning is that the horse will assist souls in returning home as quickly as possible, while the cow will leisurely transport them back to heaven once the celebration is done.

    Most Japanese people also start Obon with a visit to the cemetery to clean up the family’s grave and pray for their peaceful existence wherever they are. This practice is called Ohaka Mairi.

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    Day 2: Hōyo (法要)

    On the second day, families that follow the practice will invite a Buddhist priest to their homes or visit a temple or shrine to recite a ritual and perform a mourning ceremony during the second and third days of Obon festivities. In Japanese, they are known as hoyo or kuyo

    They enjoy lunch together after the recital, reliving old memories about their beloved departed. Shojin ryori is a vegetarian dinner that typically comprises stewed beans, spinach with soy sauce and sesame seeds, or pickled cucumbers.

    Day 3: Okuribi (送り火)

    On the third day, Obon comes to a close with another bonfire lighting up the sky, this time to send the spirits of the ancestors to the netherworld. People will also arrange Bon Odori dances in several parts of Japan. These ancient dances were initially done for the departed, but have become a symbol of summer celebrations in recent years. 

    The Gozan Okuribi (or Daimonji) in Kyoto is one of the most well-known bonfire celebrations in this tradition. It is so well-known that thousands of people visit each year. Another well-known Obon custom is the Toro Nagashi festival in Asakusa which hosts some of the most popular Obon celebrations.

    The Japanese are noted for being non-religious, and festivals have evolved to become more about entertainment than tradition. Obon is one of the few festivals throughout the year that emphasizes the value of families spending time together and returning to their roots along with the spirits of those who have passed away.

    Bon Odori dance festival during Obon Japana

    What is the famous Bon-Odori or Bon dance?

    The Bon Odori (盆踊り) or Obon dance is one of the most important Obon festival customs in Japan. The Bon Odori is performed as a means of expressing joy and happiness that the ancestors are free from suffering. One way of looking at it is from the Buddhist roots of Obon, which is the tale of Maudgalyayana. Upon saving his mother from the realm of hungry ghosts and seeing how good she had been to him throughout his life, Maudgalyayana rejoiced by dancing.

    Similarly, Bon Odori was seen as a way of welcoming the spirits who visit this world during Obon and seeing them off at the end of the holiday. It dates back to around five centuries ago and has its roots in Nembutsu Odori, a Buddhist ritual that involves dancing and chanting.

    This is a fun Bon festival event that can range in size from a small village gathering to a large tourist draw. Bon Odori dances are often held in the evening when the weather is pleasant. The dance will take place in front of a grandstand that will be decked with streamers and lanterns. 

    You can also see Taiko (太鼓), a big Japanese drum, that is frequently used to accompany dancers dressed in yukata during the dance. The Bon Odori melody stands out, yet there are pop tunes thrown in for good measure. 

    The dancing style of a Bon Odori dance might be influenced by the region from which it originates. The Tanko-Bushi, for example, is a dance based on a song of the same name from Tagawa City, a coal-mining town. The steps are inspired by the way coal miners dance. Tanko-Bushi means "Coal Miners' Song." Digging, slinging the coal basket on your back, and pulling the cart are examples of it. 

    The steps of a Bon Odori dance are usually simple to follow, regardless of where it is performed. It's usually performed in a circle, with the more experienced dancers in the center and those just learning in the outer circle.

    If you want to learn how to dance the famous Japanese Bon Odori, you can go check out this video!

    What items are used in Bon Odori?

    Aside from dance styles, regional differences in Bon Odori can also be seen in the items used in the performance. Here are some of the items you’ll typically see in Bon Odori.

    Yagura

    A yagura is an elevated platform that the performers use as a stage (dancers, musicians, and singers). Because red and white are considered favorable colors, they are commonly used to adorn them. The yagura also has beautiful lanterns hanging from it.

    Traditional attires

    The traditional cotton robe worn by artists and even onlookers during the Obon festival is known as a yukata. Because it is made of a light material that allows air to pass through, it is ideal for the summer heat. It might be a single color, which is what most males wear, or it can be a variety of colors and patterns for ladies and children.

    Some performers wear particular festival attire, such as the hanui worn by performers during the Nishimonai Bon Odori.

    Traditional music instruments

    Taiko (bass drum), Surigane (gong), Kodaiko (snare drum), Yokobue (flute), Tsuzumi (hand drum), and Shamisen are examples of traditional Japanese musical instruments played in the Bon Odori.

    Props

    Props such as kachi-kachi (wooden castanets), tenugui (patterned towel), and a straw hat with flowers (exclusive to Yamagata's Hanagasa Odori) are used in the Bon Odori.

      

     

     

     

     

    How does each region celebrate Obon festival in Japan?

    There are many regional variations when it comes to celebrating Obon. Some regions have become famous for certain aspects of their Obon traditions. Here are several famous Obon festivals in Japan:

    Gujo Odori in Gifu

    Over 400 years ago, during the Tokugawa period, Endo Yoshitaka founded the Gujo Odori event. This was an attempt to bring together all of the town's residents, regardless of social status or position. This spirit is still alive and well in the heart and soul of this famous summer Bon dance event. 

    The Gujo Odori in Gifu is regarded as one of Japan's three most significant festivals. Gujo Odori is typically held on over 30 festive nights, from mid-July until the first weekend in September. During this time, tens of thousands of people dance the ten traditional Bon Odori dances of the festival in the streets throughout the town.

    The "Tetsuya Odori" celebrated on the four nights of the festival during "Obon" in the middle of August is the most thrilling moment for many. These are the evenings when partygoers dance from sunset till the sun rises above the surrounding mountains in the morning.

    Gujo Odori is usually performed live by a small group of singers and musicians in the center of the dancing circle, sitting in a tiny float. The shamisen, bamboo flute, and taiko drum are among the instruments featured in each song. On lighted lanterns in the float's corners, the name of the song presently being sung is shown. 

    Locations for each day often change and follow a historic and traditional pattern whereby dancing takes place near-certain temples and shrines over the period of the festival. The dance locations are not difficult to find and are indicated on the dance schedule.

    Gozan no Okuribi in Kyoto

    Gozan no Okuribi or known as mountain bonfire, is illuminated on five mountaintops near Kyoto as part of the country's possibly most famous Obon event. The deceased who have returned to see their surviving family during the Obon holiday is thought to depart into the spiritual realm on August 16th. Various places and groups in Japan have different traditions for sending them out, and one of them is Kyoto's ritual bonfires!

    The Okuribi (send-off flames) are made up of the kanji symbol for "large" on two mountains, and two bonfires in the shape of a Torii gate and a boat on the other two. The size of the bonfires is immense in order to be visible from the city. Three "strokes" of the bonfire, each 160, 120, and 80 meters long, make up the most well-known "large" character. Each fire is ignited one by one and burned for thirty minutes before being put out. By 20:30, all of the flames have been lighted, and people from all around Kyoto have gathered in the streets, along the Kamogawa River, and in lofty buildings or hotels to see as many as they can.

    Because of Gozan Okuribi's lengthy and enigmatic history, there are a lot of intriguing superstitions about it. It is thought, for example, that drinking sake or water with the reflection of flaming bonfires on its surface may protect you against diseases such as paralysis. 

    Many people also visit temples affiliated with each fire to write gomagi, or prayers, on cedar strips that will be burned alongside the bonfires and, presumably, reach heaven through the rising smoke.

    If you are interested in the customs and features of shrines and temples, you can go check out this Ultimate Guide to Shrines and Temples in Tokyo.

    Traditional Japanese temple

    Tokyo Koenji Awa-Odori in Tokyo

    Tokushima's traditional dance, Awa Odori, has been performed for almost 400 years. Awa Odori is now popular all throughout Japan, with local festivals taking on the name and upholding the culture. 

    There are two main types of dance: the "men's dance" (which many females also do), which is performed on elevated geta sandals with braided hats, and the "women dance," which is performed on raised geta sandals with braided hats. The dance is really basic; all you have to do is raise your hands and lead with the same hand and foot as you go ahead. Despite its simplicity, "ren" teams build and develop their own distinctive performances. The great diversity and stunning performances that have arisen from this simple dance are one of Awa Odori's charms.

    The Koenji Awa Odori festival in Tokyo originated in 1957 as a way to reinvigorate the city's minor commercial districts. The event has evolved over the years, and today attracts over 10,000 dancers and over 1,000,000 spectators, making it the celebration that best epitomizes Tokyo's summer. Every year on the final weekend of August, the Koenji Awa Odori is held. 

    Furthermore, Koenji's Awa Odori teams (members of the Koenji Awaodori Group) make media appearances, engage in a variety of events, host foreign relations parties, and more to keep the Awa Odori season alive all year.

    The performance takes place around the JR Koenji station and the Metro Shin Koenji station where the magic of Awa Odori consumes the village of Koenji, flutes, shamisen, chimes, huge and little taiko fill the air with wonderful rhythms.

    Toro Nagashi in Asakusa

    During the Obon festival, Toro Nagashi is a practice in which lanterns lit with candles are sailed along rivers to lead the souls of the ancestors back to the other side. 

    Between the Azuma-Bashi bridge and Kototoi-Bashi bridge, 2,500 lanterns with handwritten inscriptions are floated down a slope into the waters on the east side of the Sumida River (the Asakusa Station side).

    The tradition of praying for the souls of the departed was revived in the mid-twentieth century. Hundreds of paper lanterns are released from Shinsui Terrace near Azumabashi Bridge in Sumida Park as part of the festival, which has grown into a significant community event. 

    The illuminated lanterns gliding softly down the Sumida River's currents make a memorable and lovely experience. The Toro Nagashi festival is a more intimate experience than the high-energy festivities of the more typical fireworks shows hosted throughout the summer, especially if you shoot off your own lantern.

    You can take the Ginza Subway Line or Tobu Skytree Line to Asakusa Station since the festival is only a 3-minute walk from the station.

    Kawachi Ondo and Joko-ji in Osaka

    Joko-Ji's statue of Jizo Bosatsu was allegedly made by Ono no Katamura in the Heian Period. The statue is usually sealed away inside the temple, but they display it every year on August 24th. It is a 10-minute walk from Kintetsu Yao Station, keep in mind that Joko-Ji is quite far from JR Yao Station or Osaka Metro Yao-Minami Station.

    So what exactly is Jizo-bon? The 24th of every month is a significant day for Jizo in Buddhism. Because they are so near to the Obon period, the dates of August 23rd and 24th are known as Jizo-bon. During Jizo-bon, local communities clean and replace the bibs of the neighborhood's Jizo statues. This event is not for departed adults, but for children, since Jizo supports the spirits of dead children.

    Jizo statues are surrounded by children from the village, and monks offer a particular prayer for the Jizo. Following that, there was generally a festival-style event where the kids could play games. Joko-ji, for example, began performing Bon Odori at Jizo-bon throughout time, finally evolving into what it is now. 

    You are not alone if you have never heard of Jizo-bon. While Jizo-bon is immensely popular in the Kansai area, it is almost unknown in the Kanto region.

    Joko-Ji is known for its Nagashi-Bushi Seicho Kawachi Ondo Bon Odori. Nagashi-bushi is an ancient practice in which many people congregate in the temple to dance every summer on the 23rd and 24th of August. This particular form of Bon Odori can only be seen at Joko-Ji, so if you happen to be in the vicinity, you should certainly check it out!

    Unlike other Bon Odori, Nagashi-bushi, which is performed in Joko-ji, has no set tunes. They "read" traditional folktales to the music instead. Nagashi-bushi began during the Muromachi Period's temple restoration when workmen brought lumber from Kyoto. This indicates that this Bon Odori has been around for 600 years. The Nagashi-bushi was popular across the Kawachi area in its prime, but it is now exclusively performed in Joko-Ji. The modern version of Kawachi Ondo takes place after 9 PM. This version of the Kawachi Ondo is highly well-known in Japan, and it is typically what people think of when they hear the word "Kawachi Ondo." While some believe the contemporary variety sprang from the Nagashi-bushi, it is more probable that it is a hybrid of many other types of Bon Odori found in Osaka's Kawachi district.

    One of the most distinctive aspects of Kawachi Ondo is how frequently the melody changes. Compared to Nagashi-bushi, the songs and dances are significantly more energized. The most important aspect, though, is that the music frequently incorporates a variety of different forms, such as rock or jazz. The Kawachi Ondo is particularly popular among young Japanese people because of its blend of traditional and modern elements.

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    What decorations are used in the Obon festival?

    During the Obon festival, small Obon lanterns on stands (Obon chōchin 盆提灯) are lighted to welcome back the spirits of departed ancestors, while sacrifices are given at family altars. Family members also place lanterns in front of their homes to help guide the return of the ancestors' spirits to their eternal homes. At the end of the Obon festival or the last day of the festival, the lanterns are released into the nearest body of water so that the spirits can return to the other world. Sometimes, Obon lanterns were placed near the graves of ancestors, notably in the precincts of Buddhist temples, and were often designed with colorful bright papers.

    A tsuri dourou is a free-hanging lantern structure that is not attached to the ground. These traditional Japanese lanterns were originally constructed of copper and had four to six sides. Because they are usually outdoors, they were initially built of copper to protect them from the weather. These are frequently made to highlight the crest. 

    Nowadays, A tsuri doro is made of paper, glue, and bamboo. They are deployed for Japanese customs, such as when people set lanterns on a river to keep an eye on them.

    Paper lanterns

    The history of traditional paper lanterns has been around for about 500 years, according to historical records. They were initially used by the Japanese to commemorate Chinese festivities. However, they have become part of Japanese culture and are still utilized at festivals in Japan today. 

    Because they were made for festivals, they are among the most frequent lanterns in Japan. When it comes to shape and size, these are distinguishable. These are utilized on exceptional occasions and have a diameter of 5 meters or more. Smaller ones are also utilized on a daily basis. Unlike other Japanese lanterns, they have a cylindrical or circular form.

    Modern Japanese lanterns

    Japanese lanterns continue to evolve as the years go by.  Lanterns are increasingly widely utilized as a form of ceremony. They're not the same as regular lanterns. While lanterns did not originate in Japan, it is encouraging to see that anything may thrive in the country. Chinese lanterns will always be associated with the Chinese, but Japanese lanterns are distinct. These lanterns make excellent decorations and they made certain that Japanese lanterns were constructed from high-quality materials.

    How can I make Obon lanterns at home?

    Japanese paper lanterns have long been associated with the Obon festival, which has been celebrated in Japan and by Japanese communities across the world for over 500 years. Families come to pay their respects to their deceased ancestors during the Obon holiday, floating paper lanterns on the river to signify the soul's passage into the next world. This project requires only a few ingredients, whether you're constructing a Japanese lantern for your personal Obon holiday or as a lovely decoration for your house.

    You can go check out this article on how to make a Japanese paper lantern or you can also watch how to make chouchin (paper lantern) in the video below.

    What to eat during the Obon festival?

    Festivals aren't complete without food, of course. Aside from the delicacies left as special offerings for family ghosts, other traditional meals such as Okonomiyaki (savory pancakes), takoyaki (octopus balls), and yakitori (chicken skewers) are all popular street meals in Japan. Delicious sweets such as Uji-kintoki (sweetened shaved ice) and dango (sweet dumplings) are also enjoyed by family members and festival-goers during Obon festivities.

    Japanese food stalls during Obon festival japan

    3 Things you should NEVER do during Obon in Japan

    Don't give fancy flowers

    You might be wondering why I can't give fancy flowers to the cemetery. Well, since Japanese folks will place flowers in tiny vases after washing the family cemetery. These flowers are meant to be subtle. 

    Keep in mind to avoid fancy flowers and anything with a strong aroma but it's fine to bring the relatives' favorite flowers.

    Throughout the year, florists will have bukka (仏花, literally “Buddha’s flowers”), flowers just for visiting a grave or placing on the family altar. If in doubt, just tell a florist that you need a bouquet for Ohaka Mairi

    Japanese

    Romaji

    English

    これからお墓参りに行くんですけど

    Kore kara ohaka mairi ni ikun desu kedo

    I'm going to visit the cemetery now.

    Don’t have fun with your friends Or get married

    If Obon is a time for spirits to return from the other world, shouldn't it be the ideal time for a wedding? Isn't it then possible for everyone in the family to attend? 

    True, Obon is a summer holiday, but it is the one summer holiday that practically every Japanese student or worker receives, which is why ticket prices are so expensive and traffic is so bad. It is a low-key occasion to be shared with one's family. Spend time with your pals before or after Obon, not in the middle of it. Weddings and other happy situations should also be avoided. 

    Don’t swim in the ocean

    Doesn't summer mean having fun at the beach? It is, unless you just intend to stay on the beaches, that is. If you step into the water, you're on your way to an early grave. 

    This is how it works: the spirits go by sea to the land of the living. 

    That is why the Japanese light mukaebi / okuribi, a big fire that guides spirits to and from the ocean and onto the beach. When the ghosts arrive on land, they follow lamps to their ancestral house. Paper lanterns known as Toro Nagashi (floating lanterns) can also be seen on the sea.

    Now, the spirits that had no one to welcome them are stuck in the ocean, no doubt with a grudge for the living. It’s those spirits in limbo that are responsible for all the water-related deaths and injuries. What’s more, all those jellyfish in the summer ocean? Those are the spirits!

    If you are looking to surf or do a little sunbathing on a beach in Tokyo, but you don't know when and where have a read of our Ultimate Guide to Visiting a Tokyo Beach.

    Things to keep in mind during the Obon in Japan

    The dreaded traffic

    Most companies are closed at this time of year to allow workers and employees to spend time with their families to enjoy the holidays. It's worth noting that the Japanese don't have a lot of long vacations. This indicates that a large number of individuals will be traveling at this time. Due to the fact that it is summer, all students are out of school. Because of this, many international visitors desire to avoid visiting Japan during the second and third weeks of August. Seats on trains and aircraft are also hard to come by. And residents are more likely to rent cars and travel home, clogging main highways.

    Hotels are expensive and fully booked, and most tourist destinations are completely packed. Finding parking spaces in tourist destinations, restaurants, and the like might be close to impossible. But, it is also important to note that major cities are usually deserted at this time and most business hotels are also almost empty.

    Places to avoid

    Obon week (together with New Year's in January) is one of Japan's three longest holidays. It is also one of the rare holidays when Japanese citizens are permitted to return home and recuperate. This is also one of the few holidays that occurs during the summer when all students are out of school. 

    As a result of these events, a huge number of local visitors are visiting various tourist spots at this time. A large percentage of the Japanese populace travels to the countryside during this period because they use it to visit their ancestral family houses. Because practically all modes of transportation are problematic during this time, it is advised to avoid these locations.

    Final Thoughts

    Now you know that Obon in Japan is a very special time of year with modern celebrations held along with the traditional rituals. This festival gives us some insight into Japan’s Buddhist roots as well as into the unique ways each part of the country celebrates the holiday and carries out its fun-filled summer festivals. 

    The yearly festival's original purpose was to welcome back the spirits of ancestors and to bring families together to visit the graves of the departed. It is a celebration that is close to the hearts of the Japanese people. Since it involves family, it is a personal and private celebration. However, there are festivities like lantern displays, lantern events, dances, musicals, and much more during the Obon celebrations. Obon customs vary by area in Japan, but food offerings, fires, and festivities are common. Bon Odori, or major dance festivals, are conducted throughout Japan, and participating in these activities will be an unforgettable part of your visit! Remember that Obon week is also the busiest travel season of the year, so plan your reservations in advance!

    And if you plan to be in Japan in July or August, it's certainly worth attending an Obon or you can also check our Ultimate Guide to Japanese Culture or Ultimate Guide to Japanese Customs

    Archer

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