Summer festivals are common throughout Japan, their beginnings traced to the annual Buddhist event honoring ancestors. Changes in calendar and regional preferences have some events in July, others in August. In Book 2 of the Shig Sato Mystery series “The Thief’s Mistake,” Shig Sato and other characters refer to ‘the holidays.’ July, and especially August, are busy vacation seasons, and many people who never stray far from their home or work will travel the length of the country to return to their ancestral village to honor their family. It’s a busy travel time, and in Tokyo, it coincides with other summer activities and the typical hustle and bustle of a world city.
What marks obon events from the other special times in the Japanese year is the the overwhelming sense of community – lanterns are hung in front of houses to guide the ancestors’ spirits and at community gatherings, villagers and visitors alike join in bon-odori dances. Each region has its own songs and dances, typical reflecting what the area is known for, such as mining, farming, or fishing. Other o-bon songs reflect the spiritual aspect of the occasion. Almost always performed in a group, with gestures reflected the words and spirit of the folk song, a sense of community rises during the community celebrations. And it’s not uncommon to see other performances, such as taiko drum ensembles.
Still, individuals and families take time to reflect on those who came before them. There are visits to graves and food offerings are made at house altars and temples. In some areas, floating lanterns are put into rivers, lakes and seas in order to guide the spirits back into their world.
Obon is one of Japan’s three major holiday seasons, along with New Year’s and Golden Week in early May. Unlike those two holidays, and since the obon is celebrated in either July or August, depending on the region, the holiday travel and related activity is less concentrated and more spread out, depending on the region.
A visit to Japan during obon, the cherry blossom season in April or any sumo basho tournament month, and you will experience what sets Japanese culture apart from any other. Bon voyage.