Obon started in Japan

August 15, 2013 Juju Kurihara 2 Comments

Yesterday my mum phoned me. At the end of the conversation, she told me that today everyone is coming to the grandma´s house. Any special occasion? It´s Obon (お盆) in Japan. Obon is a Japanese custom to honours the spirits of our ancestors. In other words this is the period of time when the spirits of dead ancestors come down to our world. If you know about “día de los muertos” in November in Mexico, you may be familiar.

obon trafficOnly Tokyo area celebrate it in the mid July but the rest of Japan do it in August. During Obon is another important holiday season for Japanese and people usually take day off from work from three days to a week. Usually people go back to their hometown to see the family. Three days ago, there was a massive traffic jam of the people who aim to leave big cities where they live. 

As a child, I remember we were always stuck in this traffic for hours and hours and arrived at my grandparents´ house nearly a bed time. 


obon 3Obon starts with Mukae-bi (迎え火), which is the fire that supposed to be a sign for our ancestors´ spirits to come home safely. This is Mukae-bi from our friend, Osakaya (大阪屋). The plants that are burnt are different in the regions. In Tokyo, straws are common. Hemp is also common in some regions. 

We wait until the fire puts away then the family goes inside the house. Obon begins. At the entrance, my grandma had a lantern with a candle inside and it was lit all the time during Obon.

For a small child all of this ceremony was mysterious. In addition, my grandparents´ house was very old at that time and had a big garden with lots of Bonsai. There were many places of dark spots, inside and outside of the house. After finding out that the dead spirits were with us during Obon, I tried not to see in the dark. I just didn´t want to bump into my ancestors. 


bon odoriObon is also the period of summer festival. In the evening my grandma would put me into a Yukata (summer Kimono) and I went to a local festival with my two cousins. It was just magic. Normally it was held at a local shrine or a school. In the centre, there was a tower with a stage and people are dancing in the circle. Around the tower is where we can join to dance. And the rest of the place was filled with stalls of any sort of festival food, cotton candies, Takoyaki (octopus balls), shaved ice, apple candies and so on. Then there were stalls for games, catching goldfish, shooting, Corinth game or quoit. I wasn´t allowed to eat any food from the festival stalls but my mum would by me some secretly. “It´s festival” she said. I guess it was her, wanted to eat but for me it was a special night once in a year.


obon 2This week, Japan slows down. I think it´s a good custom to think about our loved ones who passed away, to see all the relatives you don´t see so often, to enjoy summer festivals and fireworks that tickles your tummy. It makes me feel Summer. 

I remember the texture of the towel my mum put on my back inside theYukata because I sweated a lot and it gave me a heat rash. I remember the lights of lanterns hung up around the festival area. I remember the warmth of the asphalt we sat to see the fireworks show at Tokyo Bay. Every summer, I miss these small things I used to do.   



Obon is also available from MangoSalute


More Japanese custom




Seijin no Hi


Kodomo no Hi

Momo no Sekku




  1. Fabio 9 years Reply

    Thank you for your article, very interesting. I think obon tradition is very beautiful. May I make an additional question? The part I found more “suggestive” is the end of obon when a lot of small lanterns was placed into a river and allow the water to carry away them. From what I read these lights allow the spirit of ancestors to go back in the “afterlife” and withoud them it would be impossible for spirits to go back. Is this true? ^_^
    Thank you

    • juju.kurihara 9 years

       Hi Fabio san. Thank you for your comment. Yes, the last day of Obon, all the spirits go “home” with the lanterns. But this is also regional, more western part of tradition. It´s beautiful to see although I´ve never experienced myself yet since I´m from Tokyo. Check this video, http://youtu.be/0Uh4WPb66qE

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