Japan's Festival of the Dead: Obon 

Kyoto's the Place to Send the spirits back home

Obon is a Buddhist event celebrated in Japan but it has its roots in India. They say that at this time of year the spirits of the deceased come back to the ‘real world’ to receive thanks from the living. Could explain the increase of ghost stories in the summer!!! The tradition was brought to Japan via China in the 7th century but it wasn’t widely celebrated by the general populace until the Edo Period.

Obon is traditionally the time for ochugen gift-giving. That tends to be the ‘July obon’: like many other events in Japan some locations follow the lunar calendar and others the solar calendar. Here in Kyoto Obon is held in mid August.

Most families will welcome the spirits by cleaning house, setting out offerings on the butsudan, a small cabinet dedicated to ones ancestors, and by lighting lanterns to guide the spirits home. Many families will go to the cemeteries to clean and make offerings at the gravesite.

Daimonji Wagashi 67 (1) ObonAlthough it is not an official public holiday it is considered Japan’s summer holiday. It is one of the most important family gatherings of the year. So like the Golden Week holiday I posted earlier, traveling in Japan during the Obon can be quite hectic with crowds at all the major airports, train and bus stations.

 Another important part of the tradition is the Bon Odori. Though the original Buddhist story behind the dance is lost to most, tens of thousands enjoy it regardless. The music, costumes and even the dance itself vary from region to region. 

ObonIn many different areas, Obon ends with toro nagashi, in which families will light lanterns and float them down rivers to symbolize the departed souls returning ‘home’.

Lighting the bonfires of the characters etched into the hills around Kyoto is the climax of the Obon here, celebrated annually on August 16th. It is considered one of the four great events of Kyoto and people from all over Japan (and the world) come to watch. Though commonly referred to as Daimonji yaki most Kyotoites call it Gozan no Okuribi kind of like people from San Francisco don’t call their city San Fran or Frisco!

A bit of trivia… even though they call it the ‘five hills sending off flame’ it is actually six hills! Four of them are kanji and the other two are shapes. The myo•ho count as one, it refers to a Buddhist teaching. A literal translation could be ‘strange law’… some things don’t change! 

ObonEditorial team adds: Traditionally at obon families set up a special altar to pay homage to their deceased forebears. Food offerings may include dango rice dumplings, fruit and noodles. Vegetable creatures, such as an ox made from a nasu eggplant or a horse fashioned from a kyuri cucumber, serve as symbolic transport for ancestors to cross the Sanzugawa river and return safely to the the Land of the Dead.

The following comes from Sarah Troop’s rather unusual website, Nourishing Death: “Certainly the most whimsical use of raw vegetables comes to us from Japan, during Obon – an observance which is in many ways similar to that of Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos or All Soul’s Day. During the Obon festival days it is believed that the souls of the departed return  to visit their living relatives. Animal figures, typically cows and horses fashioned from vegetables are created. It is believed that the spirits of the dead ride the animals between the worlds of the living and the dead”.


“On the first day of Obon the animals are typically placed outside the front door or gate of the home along with burning incense. The smoke from the burning incense is intended to help the spirits to find their way home. The following day the animals are taken indoors, placed on an altar and offered ceremonial food. When the final day of Obon comes the animals are taken to the river and left on a bank for their ride home to the spirit world”.