Festivals in the summer are as ubiquitous as warm weather, and nearly every culture has a major celebration that you can take part in while wearing shorts. In Japan, Obon is a festival that combines spiritualism with communal fun. It is a three day festival based on the Buddhist belief that ancestors’ spirits visit the world of the living. The story goes that a disciple of the Buddha managed to see the spirit of his deceased mother, and saw that she was suffering. He then asked the Buddha what he could do, and was told to make offerings to Buddhist monks on the fifteenth day of the seventh month to relieve her suffering. The disciple did so and was successful, and he danced with joy to celebrate, which formed the basis of the “Bon Odori” or “Bon Dance.”
In Japan, during either July or August, people return to hometowns or ancestral homes, and hang up lanterns so that the spirits can find where they are going. During the day, people attend carnival like events, and there is traditionally a community-specific Bon dance. At the end of the festival, lanterns are sent down rivers and streams to help guide the spirits back to the spirit world. People can be seen wearing “yukata,” a casual summer kimono at Obon, as it is cooler than other kimono. However, each community’s festival is unique in different ways. Typically, the dances themselves differ from each other, as the dance is meant to represent that specific community, but other aspects of the festivals can be unique as well. These can range from the music played to the features of a given location to the length of the celebration itself. Because the JASGP is celebrating Obon again this August, we decided to take a look at some other festivals from around Japan.
Kobe Seaside Bon Odori Festival:
Celebrated on August 19th, Kobe’s one day long public celebration takes place along the seaside where the open air festivities focus on the Bon Odori itself. The dances specific to Kobe, and include larger staged performances accompanied by drums. Additionally, there is a large fireworks display that takes place over the water, and the reflection is said to be truly beautiful.
Hokkaido Bon Odori:
If you happen to be in Sapporo, Hokkaido from August 14th to the 20th, you can check out Hokkaido’s traditional Bon Dance. The festival typically includes large drum and dance performances. A fun, family friendly aspect of Sapporo’s Bon Dance is that it is reserved for children and the parents guiding them from 6:00-7:00 pm. Afterwards, older children and adults may join in the dancing until 9:00 pm.
Daimonji, or Goyama Fire:
If you are in Kyoto on August 16th, you can see the stunning bonfires Kyoto puts on for its Obon celebration. These fires are lit in the mountains surrounding Kyoto, within a time frame and spell out Daimonjiyama in kanji. They are truly breathtaking pyrotechnics. Each fire lasts about thirty minutes, and the festivities are spread out around Kyoto for easy access across the city.
Hibiya Park Bon Dance:
Tokyo has many Obon festivals across its massive metropolitan area, but one of the largest is in Hibiya park on August 25th and 26th. Nearly 34,000 people take part in the massive Bon Dance over the course of the two day event. The culmination occurs at the center, where people do the traditional Bon Dance around a large fountain, circling it the entire time. Typically, the dance occurs around wooden scaffolding where the drums are played. Using the fountain as a focal point adds flare to the dance that you typically won’t find in other Bon Dance circles.
Tsukiji Hongwanji Bon Odori:
Tokyo’s other popular Bon Odori occurs on August 2nd to the 5th. Held near the Tsukiji Hongwanji temple, the festivities include several professional Bon Odori dances put on by professional groups, as well as special costume events for those who wish to don something a little flashier than traditional yukata. Addtionally, the festival is held near the Tsukiji Market, allowing easy access to delicious Japanese street food.
Philadelphia has its own Obon festival on Sunday August 27th, from 11:00 am to 5:00 pm. Please come out and join us!