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The Ultimate Guide to Japan’s Obon Festival


You may already be acquainted with celebrations that honor the departed. In Mexico, there’s the vibrant Día de Los Muertos (“Day of the Dead”), while European nations commemorate All Saints’ Day. 

In Japan, many celebrate the ever popular Obon Festival, or simply Obon (お盆). It is one of the most important holidays in Japan. During Obon, families gather to honor their ancestors, who they believe temporarily come back from the spiritual realm to visit them. At the close of Obon, the family then guides their spirits back to their own world. 

Below, we’ll take a look at the many traditions of Japan’s Obon festival, from lanterns that welcome spirits home to the intricate steps of bon odori (盆踊り). 

If you’re interested in engaging with Japanese culture on a deeper level—from Obon to traditional tea ceremonies—learning Japanese is the perfect way to expand your knowledge. Rosetta Stone can help you take the next step on your language journey! Through engaging immersion, immediate pronunciation feedback, and bite-sized lessons, you can learn Japanese from anywhere at your own pace. 

Why is the Obon Festival celebrated in Japan?

The roots of Obon are found in a Buddhist story originally from India. Tradition says a Buddhist disciple saw his mother suffering in the afterlife and asked the Buddha how to help her. He was told to give abundant offerings to the monks on the 15th day of the 7th month. When the disciple did so, his mother was released from her suffering. 

As Buddhism spread in Japan, this story and the associated customs were also adopted. Over time, however, the tradition evolved. It became a widespread cultural observance in Japan, rather than a strictly religious one, taking on unique Japanese beliefs and practices. The nature of the holiday shifted, centering the practice of paying tribute to all ancestors. 

Obon gets its name from the Sanskrit word ullambana. Its literal meaning is “to hang upside down”, as the disciple’s mother had in purgatory. Now it’s associated with “deliverance from suffering”. When this word was transliterated into Japanese, it became “Urabanna”, then “Urabon”, and finally “Obon”.

ancient-moss-covered-cemetery-shrines-in-japan

When is the Obon Festival in Japan?

In most parts of Japan, Obon festivities are held from August 13 to August 16.

However, the dates of the Obon Festival can differ depending on the region! Sometimes even parts of the same prefecture will celebrate Obon on different days. 

Places where Obon isn’t held on August 13-August 16 typically celebrate from July 13-July 16.

If you are not in Japan but would like to participate in Obon, try looking for events in your area! While Japanese people often get days off for this holiday, unfortunately this isn’t the case abroad. Therefore Obon festivals in other countries are likely to be held on weekends.

Due to the variation, you’ll want to check the date for Obon where you are. Usually it will be sometime between July to September.

Why is Obon sometimes held on different days?

Historically, the time for Obon was decided based on the lunar calendar. Although it was originally held on 13th to the 15th day of the 7th lunar month, it shifted to August when converted to the Gregorian calendar. 

The July date came about when Japan switched to the Gregorian calendar. This change was made during the Meiji era—well-known for being the time Japan opened up to the world—in order to foster better relations with western countries.

In areas where most of the work was office jobs, it was relatively easy to change the dates for Obon. This is why Tōkyō and other urban areas tend to celebrate Obon in July.

On the other hand, in areas where most of the work was agricultural and therefore dependent on the seasons, this proposed switch was too difficult. Thus August remained the time to celebrate Obon.

Okinawa is a unique case but actually best adheres to the historical legacy. They still celebrate directly according to the lunar calendar. When converted to the Gregorian calendar, the date shifts each year. As they stick to the “old” time, their celebration is sometimes referred to as “old Obon“, or Kyuubon (旧盆).

Obon Festival traditions

Over the course of 4 days, Japanese communities practice a variety of traditions that welcome spirits home, honor them while they’re here, and send them back to their resting places. 

Day 1: Calling the spirits home

On the first day of Obon, families engage in the traditions of mukae bon (迎え盆), where mukae means “to welcome” or “to go out and meet.” 

One of the most unique things they do is set out a cucumber and an eggplant propped up on chopsticks. These vegetables symbolize the different steeds ancestors ride while coming in and going out. The cucumber is meant to look like a fast horse, ushering a fast arrival; the eggplant represents a slow-moving cow, so the spirits can have a leisurely return. They are referred to as shouryou uma (精霊馬, literally “spirit horse”) and shouryou ushi (精霊牛, “spirit cow”) respectively.

Most people do a grave visit (お墓参り, o haka mairi) on the first day of Obon. At that time, they clean the graves of their deceased loved ones and make offerings. Standard offerings include flowers, incense, and food. They also place bon lanterns (盆提灯, bon djōchin) there, which act as beacons to guide the spirits to their families.

The mukaebi (迎え火, “welcoming fires”) likewise direct their ancestors to the right place. Traditionally, families will light a small bonfire at home in the evening. However, out of safety concerns there has been a shift towards hanging bon lanterns at houses instead.

Day 2 and 3: Festivities and traditional bon dances 

Much of Obon has a more solemn tone. But this time is also livened up with dances! 

The traditional dances performed during Obon are called bon odori (盆踊り; bon is the same character used in Obon, and odori is literally “dance”). 

People will don light cotton kimono called yukata (浴衣) and gather in large numbers to participate in the bon odori and the surrounding festival. While there are religious explanations for many of the dance moves, most people simply enjoy the jubilant atmosphere. Like other Japanese festivals, there are likely to be stalls with street food and carnival games.

During the second and third days of Obon, families also simply enjoy spending time together. It is common for people to travel back to their hometowns. The family may prepare special meals and set aside time to remember the deceased.

Day 4: Sending off the spirits 

The last day has the reverse of mukae bon: okuri bon (送り盆). Okuri means “to send off.” 

As mukae bon featured the lighting of mukaebi, there are corresponding okuribi (送り火, “sending off fires”). The city of Kyōto is especially well-known for their enormous mountainside okuribi (pictured above) which form Japanese kanji characters and other symbols.

A beautiful ceremony called Tōrō Nagashi (灯篭流し) is also usually held on the last day of Obon. For this ceremony, thousands of floating lanterns are released onto large bodies of water. It’s believed that these lanterns lead the spirits home. 

plate-of-round-white-dango-a-popular-japanese-food-eating-during-the-japanese-obon-festival

Obon Festival foods

There’s no definite list of foods for Obon, but here are some of the most popular choices. These foods may actually be consumed or simply given as offerings.  

  • Ohagi (おはぎ): A traditional Japanese sweet made by coating mochi rice with sweet red bean paste (あんこ, anko).
  • Dango (団子): A type of sweet dumpling. Different kinds of dango are eaten for various occasions, but the ones typically eaten for Obon are plain white and arranged in a pyramid shape.
  • Vegetable tempura (野菜の天ぷら): Deep-fried vegetables such as okra, eggplant, and sweet potato.
  • Sōmen (素麺): Long, very thin noodles that are often served cold. There are multiple theories as to why sōmen is associated with Obon: the length could symbolize a long period of happiness, or the shape may resemble the reins of the “spirit horses” that ancestors ride to travel to their family in the living world. When sōmen is given as an offering, it may be cooked or uncooked. 
  • The favorite foods of deceased relatives: Obon is a time to commemorate family members who have passed, and one way to do so is to partake in their favorite foods.

Things to avoid during the Obon Festival

More than most holidays, Obon is focused on showing respect. In order to not commit a faux paus, it’s good to know the main things to avoid during Obon.

  • Certain types of flowers: Generally, the flowers you offer to ancestors should be understated, and white is the preferred color. However, there are certain kinds of flowers to especially avoid giving: unlucky flowers (such as camellias and black flowers), poisonous flowers (such as red spider lilies and daffodils), flowers with thorns, and strong-smelling flowers.
  • Entering water: One of the customs of Obon is to set floating lanterns on water to guide the spirits back. Thus entering an ocean or river during this time could be seen as a sign of disrespect. Or even worse, it’s believed the spirits may drag you with them back to the afterlife! There are also practical reasons to avoid the water, such as that time of summer being peak jellyfish and typhoon season. 
  • Getting married: The atmosphere of Obon for the most part is subdued with plain white dango and flowers. Thus the excitement of a wedding may not be a good match. It could also be seen as inconsiderate on a logistical level, as families would already be busy with Obon activities before stacking on a wedding. 
  • Meat: Since Obon was originally a Buddhist custom, it’s considered more respectful to follow a Buddhist diet. This means generally sticking to vegetarian foods.
obon-festival-tent-where-bon-odori-dances-are-held

How does the Obon Festival compare to China’s Ghost Festival?

China celebrates a similar festival to Obon. The Taoist version is called Zhōng yuán jié (中元节), and the Buddhist version is called Yú lán pén (盂兰盆). Either version is referred to as the “Ghost Festival” or “Hungry Ghost Festival” in English.

As you may expect, the Buddhist version has more in common with Obon. It is based on the same Buddhist story of a disciple saving his mother. It’s also speculated that the name Yú lán pén likewise comes from the Sanskrit word ullambana

Similar to Obon, participants in the Ghost Festival make food offerings and set floating lanterns on the water for the spirits. 

One of the main practices that sets the Ghost Festival apart is the burning of “hell money.” Though it may resemble real currency, it is not legal tender, and is instead specifically designed for burning as an offering. Chinese people believe that ghosts also use money and may need it to handle financial problems. By burning “hell money”, it can be sent over to the afterlife.

Another difference is the elaborate Chinese opera performances. While anyone can watch, the front row is reserved for ghosts and is kept empty. 

Obon celebrations around the world

As Japanese communities have formed around the world, Obon celebrations have also spread. Here are some other countries that partake in Obon:

  • Malaysia: The Bon Odori Festival has been held in Malaysia since 1977. It started as a small event among Japanese immigrants, but has since considerably expanded.  
  • The Philippines: Different Filipino-Japanese organizations partner to host events like the Philippine-Japan Festival in October, which features bon dances.
  • Brazil: The state of São Paolo in Brazil has the largest Japanese population outside of Japan. There, Obon is celebrated on November 2, since on that day a similar holiday for visiting graves already existed in Brazil (Dia de Finados, “Day of the Deceased”). People of Japanese descent simply changed its name among themselves and call that holiday Obon instead.
  • Argentina: Brazil might have the largest Japanese population outside of Japan, but certainly not the only one. In Argentina, the gathering in La Plata draws more than 10,000 people a year. 
  • The United States: While you can find local Obon celebrations all over the country, California and Hawaii have the largest Japanese populations. In one year, around 50,000 people attended the event Lantern Floating Hawaii, modeled after the practice of Tōrō Nagashi.
  • Canada: Similar to the US, smaller Obon events are held throughout Canada. One particularly special observance is the cleaning of graves on Vancouver Island where Japanese immigrants were buried.

It’s not necessary to go to Japan to participate in Obon! There are Japanese organizations in a multitude of countries interested in sharing and educating about Japanese culture. We recommend reaching out to groups in your area to find out more out local Obon festivals. 

square-lanterns-floating-on-the-ocean

Common Japanese phrases to know for Obon celebrations

Obon ni furusato ni kaerimasu, お盆に故郷に帰ります (I’ll return to my hometown for Obon)

For Obon, people often return to the place where they grew up. That place is referred to as their “furusato”. If you understand a bit about kanji, you may find it interesting that the same characters for furusato can also be read as kokyou, which has the same meaning.

If you’d like to ask someone whether they will return to their hometown for Obon, you can ask “Obon ni furusato ni kaerimasu ka?”

O haka mairi shimasu, お墓参りします (I’ll do a grave visit)

O haka mairi–when one visits the graves of deceased loves ones–is a central custom of obon. 

If you’d like to ask someone whether they will do a grave visit, you can ask, “o haka mairi shimasu ka?”

Itsumo mimamotte kurete arigatou gozaimasu, いつも見守ってくれてありがとうございます (thank you for always watching over me)

This is a good standard prayer to direct towards the ancestors to honor them and show appreciation for your family legacy.

Explore Japanese with Rosetta Stone

The tradition of Obon alludes to important aspects of Japanese culture. Obon incorporates Japan’s mythology, as well as its values of family and respecting forebears. Learning about holidays like Obon expands our understanding of the world and gives us greater appreciation for its diversity.

Language learning further opens that gateway to other cultures, ideas, and celebrations you never would have imagined! For those eager to embark on a linguistic journey, Rosetta Stone offers immersive lessons that emphasize natural language acquisition rather than rote memorization. As you practice speaking and develop native pronunciation using TruAccent, you can be confident as you put your new skills to the test and explore what the world has to offer.  

Written by Lydia Thron  

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