What is Obon?
お盆/Obon is an annual Japanese holiday/festival in the summer.
It is originally a Japanese Buddhist custom, which has been celebrated in Japan over 500 years. Obon is to commemorate and remember deceased ancestors and it is believed that their spirits return this time of the year to visit the relatives. During Obon season, people return to ancestral family places to visit ancestors’ graves and give some food offerings.
Family members get together and many summer festivals are held where people perform traditional dance known as 盆踊り/Bon Odori under the light of lanterns (it is believed that the fires will be a guide for ancestors to find where the relatives are).
When is it?
Obon is typically celebrated from Aug 13 to 15, but the dates may vary depending on the region of Japan.
In the Meiji era (1868-1912), the calendar system was changed to the Gregorian calendar and some areas change the date for Obon based on the new calendar while other places didn’t. Therefore, we see Obon in July in eastern Japan (such as Tokyo, Yokohama, etc), and on the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar in other places (between Aug 8 and Sep 7. This can be seen in the northern part of the Kanto area, Chugoku, Shikoku, and Okinawa).
Obon is a traditional event and not an official holiday, but many people take some days off and close businesses to see relatives, be thankful to ancestors, and enjoy the summer.
Obon is based on a legend about a Buddhist monk named Maudgalyāyana (and Obon festival is originated from the Ghost Festival of China). He used his supernatural power to look in the world after death and found his deceased mother there, who was suffering because of the hungry ghosts around her.
He asked Buddha for help and Buddha told him to give offerings to Buddhist monks who had completed their summer retreat on the 15th day of the 7th month.
This worked and his mother was released. And then he danced in celebration making a large circle with others. This dance became Bon Dance.
About Bon Dance
Obon takes place in the hot summer, so people wear 浴衣/Yukata (light cotton Kimono) to join and enjoy the festival and Bon Dance. The style of Bon Dance varies from region to region. The typical Bon dance involves people gather in a circle around やぐら/Yagura, a high scaffold. It is also used as the bandstand for the musicians of Bon music. People dance in clockwise or counterclockwise around Yagura and sometimes move towards and away from it. Ohara Matsuri in Kagoshima and Awa Odori in Tokushima areas have different style: people proceed in a straight line and go through the streets like a parade, playing music and dancing to it.
Each region has a local dance style, as well as different music. In Hokkaido, ソーラン節/Soran Bushi, is performed. People dance acting like fishermen trying to catch fish using nets. Gujo in Gifu prefecture, is famous for Gujo Odori, which is the all night dancing celebration.
Many different kinds of music is played during dance performances including traditional festival music, folk music, some modern popular music, and 演歌/Enka (sort of like the Japanese blues/Folk music. Singers sing about the nostalgia and determination in life).
Can everyone join the festival?
The religious meaning of Obon season has faded and it is celebrated more of a fun summer festival nowadays. Even if you are a tourist from a different country, you are welcome to join. You can enjoy the feel of it if you attend wearing Yukata, but that is not a must.
But note that you may need to be a member of the performers to join some Bon dance, so if you would like to participate in the dancing, check in advance or ask someone there.
This year, a lot of summer events have already been cancelled because of the coronavirus. I hope festivals will be held next time and I would like to see many people enjoying the summer in 2021!
Today’s words and phrases
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*I’m a professional composer by the way.
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