This year, the Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia will host the fifth annual Philadelphia Obon Festival just outside the gates of Shofuso Japanese House and Garden. The festival, which is slated to take place on Sunday, August 27 from 11 am – 4 pm, will feature live music, tea demonstrations, yukata (summer kimono) dressing, and the opportunity to participate in the festival’s eponymous dances, the Bon-Odori. All festival events are free, family friendly, and open to the public. In the event of rain, the festival will take place the following Sunday, September 3.
Obon (also referred to as Bon) is a Japanese custom of honoring the spirits of one’s ancestors. With roots in Buddhism and Confucianism, Obon has evolved into a family reunion holiday during which people return to ancestral family places, and when the spirits are said to visit their families in turn. It has been celebrated in Japan for more than 500 years and typically takes place between mid-July and mid-August. The Bon-Odori, which welcomes spirits, has been adapted into several dances for each region in Japan, each with their own songs.
The Japanese diaspora has brought Obon outside of Japan, adding new cultural elements to the traditions. In Brazil, the festival is celebrated not only with dancing, but also with taiko and shamisen contests. In Hawaii, songs and dances are closely linked to the regions from which many Hawaiians are descended (as well as more modern dances, like the Pokemon Ondo). Contemporary festivals all over the world regularly feature a carnival-like atmosphere with seasonal snacks like watermelon and inarizushi — and in Hawaii, spam musubi.
Philadelphia’s Obon Festival was launched in partnership with three local Japanese performing arts organizations: Kyo Daiko, the IchiFuji-kai Dance Association, and Urasenke Philadelphia. The leadership of Therese Stevens and Fujima Nishiki-no (nee Helen Moss) brought traditional music and folk dance to the festival, while Morgan Beard and the Urasenke Tea School brought tea demonstrations to the festival audience. The festival was held at Clark Park from 2013-2015 before moving to Shofuso last year. As the festival enters its fifth year, JASGP is proud to add in a Japanese flea market with vintage and contemporary goods, and Hawaiian food truck Poi Dog will return to the festival with spam musubi, butter mochi, and other Hawaiian fusion treats.