Light your lanterns and get ready for The Ghost festival in Japan called The Obon Celebration. The festival, also known as Bon festival is a three day long festival each year in the late and hot summer to honor the dead.
Light your lanterns, put on your Yukata and get ready for The Ghost festival in Japan called The Obon Celebration. The festival, also known as Bon festival is a three day long festival each year in the late and hot summer to honor the dead.
Why is every Japanese ghost story set during the hot and humid summer nights? It’s not really, but a staggering amount is and there is a reason for it!
In mid July you can hear the sound of wind chimes and there is shaved ice on every corner in the summer heat with people wearing their traditional Yukata. Perhaps coming from or going to one of the big parades? The cicadas sings and the Japanese takes the time to tell their many ghost stories in the hot summer nights.
Fun fact, some says that telling a chilling ghost story in the hot humid summers in Japan, will help cool you down, because of the goose bumps you get from being scared. And because of that, a trend in the Edo period started with telling ghost stories in the theaters in the summer times, called Kaidan.
Read Also: Some of the most famous Kaidan ghost stories is: The Myth of Oiwa — The Paper Lantern Ghost, Botan Dōrō – Tales of the Peony Lantern and Banchō Sarayashiki — the Ghost of Okiku. Check out the full story here.
The Obon Celebration is not only an ancestral celebration from the old days they keep alive. Horror movies takes over the cinema, Kabuki theaters put on their traditional ghost plays and teenagers dares each other to visit the cemeteries at night, making the whole festival seem very similar to the modern Halloween celebration in the west.
The paranormal hunters are also about, visiting well known haunted locations around the country and the belief in spirits reach an all time high. But there are also less sinister traditions that comes with the festival.
The Buddhist Obon Celebration
So what really is the The Obon Celebration other than watching horror movies, telling ghost stories and ghost hunting? Obon (お盆) or just Bon (盆) is a Japanese Buddhist custom to honor the spirits of one’s ancestors that incorporated the Japanese native folk religion Shinto, differentiating it a bit from the other Buddhist Ghost Festivals from other countries.
The Obon Celebration originated from the Indian and Chinese Ghost Festival during ghost month. There are many variant of this ghost festivals across the Asian continent coming from the same buddhist story.
Read Also: Interested in more haunted Japanese tales? Have a look at all our ghost stories from Japan
The Obon Celebration is one of the few events on the Japanese calendar that focuses on the importance of family and is there to give the families in Japan time together. It is not a public holiday, but customary to be given leave to travel to your hometown, back to your family. Both the living, as well as the dead.
When is Obon Celebrated?
The Obon Celebration has been going on every summer for over 500 years. The exact dates changes according to where you live though because the lunar calendar was changed in favor to the Gregorian calendar instead. During these days the employers often grant their workers and the trains, planes and busses are filled with people out in the countryside to celebrate it with their family or into the cities to join the big parades and happenings throughout all big cities.
Read Also: More articles on Paranormal Festivals and Happenings found in the MoonMausoleum.
In eastern Japan, it is held 15th of July, but in the western part it’s held on August 15. However, in Okinawa and the Amami Islands it’s different again and follow the Chinese way to celebrate on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month like their ghost festival. In common though, the festival lasts for three days and the official Obon holiday is from 13-15 July.
It is believed that during these three days the ancestors spirits return to the world to visit their relatives. In this time the veil between the spirit world and the world of the living is at its thinnest and therefore the spirit can pass through.
How do the Japanese Celebrate Obon?
To prepare for the return of the ancestors during the The Obon Celebration, the Japanese clean the grave sites in a ritual called Haka Mari. From the newly cleaned graves it gives a path to them back to the house in a ritual called mukae-bon. A spirit altar is put up back at the home and offerings like fruit, flowers and incense is given.
The Obon Celebration begins with Mukaebi, which is a ritual of lightning fires to guide spirits home for the duration of the festival. Often in the form of lanterns hung in front of the houses.
In this way the Obon Celebration reminds much of the western All Saints Days or Halloween celebration as it is believed the veil separating the living and the dead world is thinner and it’s a time for hauntings and ghost roaming the world.
Read Also: Halloween Traditions Across the World
The lanterns most often used is the traditional paper chochin lanterns, but how you use these lanterns and were is very different from region to region.
In some regions of Japan they light up huge fires outside the houses instead of lanterns. Like they do in The Daimonji Festival in Kyoto were they light up series of , 200m-long, character-shaped bonfires built on mountainsides.
When the Obon Celebration ends, the chochin lanterns is often used to guide them back to the spirit world, a ritual called okuri-bon.
On the final evening of the Obon festival it is thought that placing floating lanterns down the rivers will help guide the spirits back to the spirit world if you live close to a river or some sort of water. This tradition has gained a lot of popularity in modern time.
This ceremony is called Tōrō nagashi 灯籠流し, but the custom of sending floating lanterns during the Obon Celebration differs from place to place. The largest floating lanterns event though is in Hiroshima and Nagasaki to commemorate the victims of the atomic bombs during the second world war.
Welcoming and Feeding the Hungry Ghosts
One of the things The Obon Celebration is for, is to ease the suffering of spirits. To do this they have to perform the ritual of segaki 施餓鬼, meaning feeding the hungry ghosts, otherwise known as a vengeful spirit, or in the western tradition: a poltergeist. It is a ritual of Japanese Buddhist tradition.
Read Also: Interested in more ghost stories about the Hungry ghosts? How about reading about the chinese ghost story of: The Story of Tu-Po – The Hungry Ghost or about the Japanese vengeful ghost: Onryo – The Japanese Vengeful Spirit
During the festival, the ritual is performed at Buddhist temples and more offerings are given to the hungry ghosts: Rice and water. This is for the muenbotoke, or the ghosts with no living relatives that have no one to welcome them.
The food served is often vegetarian and a thing eaten much of is sticky rice balls called ohagi and odango.
Another significant ritual people do during the Obon festival is to craft a cucumber horse and eggplant cow, known as shōryō uma (精霊馬, “spirit horse”) or ushi uma (牛馬, “cow horse”). This type of carved food works almost as a vessel for the ancestors to come back home when the festival starts and return when it’s over.
The Buddhist Dance from the Spirit Realm Bon Odori
But exactly why do the Buddhists and buddhism influenced places celebrate the dead during this time? It is best seen through one of the ways the Japanese celebrate.
The Bon Dori Dance 盆踊りis a dancing style performed during The Obon Celebration. It comes from the story of Maha Maudgalyayana, or simply Mokuren which was the incident that made people celebrate the ghost festival in the first place. He was a disciple of Buddha and used his powers to look into the spirit realm. There he saw his mother, and saw she had become a hungry ghost.
He asked Buddha what to do and Buddha said to give offerings to the monks that completed their summer retreat on the 15th day of the 7th month. Mokuren did it and it worked. His mother was freed from the suffering of being a hungry ghost. He burst out dancing from pure joy.
The dance has so many variations and each region perform their local dance with their own music, however, the Japanese taiko drum is often used to the melodies of old folk songs.
There are several big parades showcasing the Bon Odori dance during the Obon Celebrations. The Tokushima Awa Festival (阿波踊り) is perhaps the most well known bon odori dance that draws millions of visitors to Tokushima to watch and join the huge parades in the city. There are the also Gujo Odori Festival in Gifu (郡上おどり) and the Akita Bon Odori Nishimonai Festival (西馬音内盆踊り). These are all well known for their Bon Dori during the ghost festival, but it is held smaller Bon Odori dances as well everywhere.
Since the celebration and all its customs is so different from region to region, the dance will look so different as well. But very often it is people lining up in a circle around a wooden scaffold made for the festival called Yagura. The dance can also include the history of the region as well. Like mimicking fishing in fishing areas, dance moves reminding of digging in coal mining areas and the likes. What they have in common though is their intent is to honor their ancestors and those that came before us.
Things to Watch out for During the Ghost Festival
Although mostly a family holiday and a time to spend with your family and religious days of remembrance and folk festivities, there are also several superstition that are said to be remembered during the days.
The first rule during Obon to beware of is to not take pictures during the night so not to capture a ghost. Perhaps a bit difficult because of all the festivities people take a photo of to remember.
It is also said not to swim as it is more likely to be drowned by a ghost. Do not steal the food offering to the hungry ghost of obvious reasons. Do not hang your clothes out to dry in the night as iit believed that the dead will wear them and don’t put the slipper heals towards your bed. Ghost will find your bed and climb into it, causing sleep paralysis.
All in all, do not do anything but being respectful to the dead during the Obon Celebration.
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What is Obon? Japan’s festival for the dead.