Obon (Bon) Festival, the Japanese Ghost Festival 2024

Every year, from the end of summer to early autumn, Japan comes to thrive with many vibrant forms of festivals and events. Obon, known as the Ghost Festival, is one of the extraordinary events during this time. Obon is highly anticipated for its great significance and brilliant highlights. The hard-to-beat festival has been hailed as one of the most festive occasions in Japan. Today we'll show you all the details about Japanese Obon. If you're planning a visit to Japan at this time of year, put it on your list.

The Obon Festival, or Bon Festival, also known as the Japanese Ghost Festival is reputedly the second-largest celebration nationwide after the New Year. It has a deep Buddhist root with a long history of about 500 years. According to Buddhist legends, around July 15 of the lunar calendar is when Japanese ancestors' spirits are allowed to return to Earth. It is a significant time for gathering with the late family and ancestors. Every year before the festival, countless Japanese return home with their families. During the four days, Japanese people worship their ancestors and cherish their late loved ones. Obon contains many fascinations with Japanese culture, ranging from sacrifice, dancing, carnival parades, and lantern displays. The chances are that you will have a thrilling experience at the Orient Feast.

The Obon Festival often falls around July 15 of the lunar calendar, and it is typically celebrated for four days every year from August 13 to 16. The date may have subtle differences among certain regions of Japan, like the Obon in Okinawa will fall on August 28 to 30 in 2024.

Making Offerings and Sweeping Tombs, Day 1

Making food offerings is a big preparation for the Bon celebration. The most important offering is Syouryouuma, the animal figurines. It is made of cucumber or eggplant with the insertion of four bamboo sticks in the shape of cattle or horses. This special offering is thought to be transportation, which means traveling spirits to Earth and the underworld. Japanese people will set an altar filled with food offerings and some memorial tablets or gifts at shrines or temples. Families will make paper lanterns to hang in the house and light them by nightfall as a way to welcome their ancestor spirits back home. During the first day, Japanese families all gather together and come to clean their ancestors' graves. Elders will talk to their ancestors, telling them what happened on Earth. Family members will pour water and place chrysanthemum flowers on the gravestone, paying their great respect and mourning for the deceased.

Japanese LanternsJapanese Lanterns

Bon Odori Dances, Day 2

Bon Odori, a traditional kind of folk dance in Japan, is definitely a never-missed part of the Obon Festival. Bon Odori, at first a distinct Buddhist tradition, has now become a large summer festival across Japan. The traditional activity is performed to please and show off the souls of ancestors. The dancing takes place in many venues, like gardens, parks, shrines, or temples. The performance comes in different forms depending on region to region. You can enjoy different styles of lyrics, music, and dance moves based on the region's cultural differences. The basic performers of the activity include dancers, singers, and musicians, all dressed in summer kimonos called yukata. The iconic part can be the taiko performance. Dancers circle the yagura, a high wooden bandstand for the musicians and singers, and play taiko drums, a traditional Japanese instrument, making stirring sounds to revivify both viewers and the ancestors' souls. Bon Odori has distinctive charms in different regions, like the three energetic styles: Awa Odori in Tokushima, Gujo Odori, and Nishimonai Odori in Akita.

Summer Kimono, YukataSummer Kimono, Yukata

Chochin Lantern Floating, Day 3

Not only hang Oban lanterns out of homes and along the streets, but Japanese people also make Chochin lanterns (toro nagashi). It has become a popular and impressive way to welcome and farewell the souls of ancestors. The paper lanterns are of various shapes and painted in beautiful floral patterns or animal images. When night falls, locals illuminate the lanterns and release them into the river. It is believed that the spirits of their ancestors may be sent into the sky by means of these floating lanterns down a river to the sea. As a symbolic way to remember the dead ancestors, the Chochin Lantern Floating creates a gorgeous and spectacular sight that feasts thousands of participants' eyes.

At the beginning and end of the Obon festival, a symbolic shower of fire is lit up at night in Kyoto to direct the spirits of ancestors to Earth and the afterlife. On the 13th day, the welcoming fires, locally called Mukaebi, are in the form of lines of lighted lanterns hanging in the houses and streets. During the night of the 16th day, Okuribi, the farewell fires are a must-have ritual during the festival. There will be five huge bonfires set alight on five mountains. The bonfires have diverse shapes, such as characters, boats, and certain kinds of animals. People will illuminate the large bonfires on hillsides or riverbanks, accompanied by singing and dancing. The gigantic glow of the raging flame is seen as a beacon that helps the deceased return to the underworld.

Festival foods, including special offerings and various street foods, are an integral and fascinating part of the Obon. Offerings are conventionally made in many ceremonies at the festival to feed the deceased and ancestors, and a wide range of street snacks are great enjoyment when watching Obon performances.

The offerings at Obon are based on vegetarian cuisine. The popular cuisines include Shojin Ryori, one soup with two or four vegetarian dishes made from white rice, vegetables, fruits, or pickles; Dango, a Japanese sweet dumpling; Somen Noodles; and Tempura, fried vegetables and mushrooms.

Somen Noodles and TempuraSomen Noodles and Tempura

Lines of food tents are a unique attraction when experiencing the Obon. The palatable street foods are an amazing addition to Obon dance viewing. There are many worth-trying street foods, like okonomiyaki (a kind of pancake), inarizushi (one type of sushi), takoyaki (octopus balls), yakisoba (fried noodles), and yakitori (chicken skewers). What's more, you can savor some Hawaiian-style treats, such as waffles, uji-kintoki shaved ice, Wow Wow Lemonade tea, and many more.

The Bon Festival is a big feast across Japan. Each region has distinct customs and rituals in celebration of the souls of their own ancestors. For marvelous engagement in an impressive range of spectacles, there are three recommended destinations to fully experience the Obon: Tokyo, Sasebo, and Tokushima.

Kyoto-Ceremonial Bonfires

The Obon festival gained great fame for the grand ceremony held in Kyoto, Gozan Okuribi, also known as the Daimonji Festival. And the ceremony has become an expectation for visiting Obon in Kyoto. It is a good-sized lighting of five mountains, typically held at 8 p.m. on August 16th. Kyoto monks will gather on the hillside and light the bonfires on five mountains one by one. The bonfires, respectively, are shaped as kanji characters of (the most magnificent and famous) the lotus, boat, and tori gate. The gigantic fires are perceived as a significant guide to pure land for the spirits. Kyoto, boasting the Daimonji sight, has become a popular destination to visit the Obon festival.

Sasebo-Spectacular Lantern Releases

In southern Japan, Sasebo's Obon features the superbly brilliant lantern floating, Toro Nagashi. The tradition is just what distinguishes Sasebo's Obon from that in other regions and thus draws a great number of tourists to the city for Obon visits. In the evening of August 15, rows of small dragon sailboats, decorated with glinting lanterns and filled with offerings, are set afloat downstream along the Sasebo River to the sea. At the same time, locals illuminate hundreds of beautifully made lanterns with a small candle inside and release them into the water. It is a special way to send off the late loved ones and family members and wipe away the evil. In the end, the spectacular view will bring out the best in the display of wonderful fireworks. If you're after ultimate lantern viewing during the festival, head to Sasebo.

Tokushima-Energetic Awa Odori

From August 12 to 15 during the Obon festival, Tokushima, west of Osaka, holds great appeal for one million visitors home and abroad to sight the local best-known Obon custom called the Awa-Odori Dance. This traditional way of celebrating in Tokushima shows you a whole vibrant side of Japanese Obon. You can see that happi and yukata, the locally traditional kimono, are worn with performances of folk acrobatic dancing and local instrument playing (trichord, flute, and drum). A team of nation-famous dancers, Ren Group, also offers phenomenal highlights to sight. There is no lack of buzz when experiencing Tokushima's Obon in the vigor of the Awa-Odori dance.

Obon has so much to offer that our guidance can't complete all the feasts. Only when you get every involvement in person can you enjoy every surprise packet of it? We hope you can learn a lot about the Obon Festival from our guide and show great interest in this old Japanese custom. If you want more information about Obon, please contact us. We're happy to recommend you more Japanese festivals outside of Obon. If you travel with Odynovo, you can enjoy an individualized itinerary based on your needs and ensure a wonderful cultural trip.

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