16 Fascinating Obon Festival Facts You May Never Know

Obon, also known as Bon Festival, is a multi-day festival that commemorates and honors ancestors. Obon is based on the notion that loved ones’ spirits and souls, as well as dead ancestors, return to visit. It is one of the most important customs for the Japanese, and the Buddhists introduced this custom to the Japanese. Today, it has evolved into a family holiday in which people pay their respects to the deceased, while also celebrating the moment with their loved ones. People frequently clean and tidy the graves of their forefathers and mothers during the Obon Festival. There are other amusing Obon Festival facts that will enrich your knowledge.

Obon is a huge part of Japanese society, and it’s just as influential and well-liked as New Year’s celebration. Obon, like many other Japanese festivals and holidays, is a mix of quiet introspection, commemoration, exuberant festivals, and traditional customs. However, there are a lot of fascinating Obon Festival facts that you must know. So, let’s check them out!

1. The History of Obon with Buddha

Obon with Buddha
Obon with Buddha

Let’s start with the first Obon Festival fact, which about the history of the festival. The Obon Festival is based on Buddhist traditions that arrived on Japanese shores in the past. According to mythology, Maha Maudgalyayana or Mokuren, a Buddhist disciple, utilized his magical abilities to see his mother who had passed away. He discovered his mother was suffering in the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. 

Later, he approached the Buddha and requested assistance with his concerns. Mokuren was told to pay contributions to Buddhist monks on the 15th day of the 7th month. As a result, his mother was free from her pain. Hence, he danced joyfully as a result of his happiness, and this is where the “Bon Dance” tradition began.

2. Obon Lights Guide The Spirits Back

Obon Lights Guide The Spirits Back
Obon Lights Guide The Spirits Back

On the first day of Obon week, people traditionally light little flames outside their homes as a welcoming fire. The Japanese believe that this light will guide the spirits of their ancestors and loved ones back to where they belong. It’s the light that lets our forefathers figure out where their family lived. 

Due to the risk of fire, people replaced the little lights with electrified paper lanterns, thanks to technological advancements. The lanterns then discharged into the nearest body of water at the end of the Obon festival, allowing the spirits to return to the other realm.

3. Bon Odori Dance Welcomes The Spirits of The Death

Bon Odori Dance Welcomes The Spirits of The Death
Bon Odori Dance Welcomes The Spirits of The Death

Townships frequently perform elaborate dances known as the Bon Odori at the traditional lantern lighting or welcoming fire. Legend has it that it is a way of expressing delight and happiness because the ancestors are no longer suffering. It is a folk entertainment with an approximately 600-year history. Originally a Nenbutsu folk dance to greet the dead spirits. A person will sing in the center on a platform along with others playing Ondo or Japanese folk music. 

Dancers will form small circles around Yagura, which is the stage where the music is playing. They wear light cotton kimonos and dance on a Yagura stage. The traditional Bon Odori dance is based on the beats of Japanese taiko drums and varies in style from region to region. Dances are performing in parks, temples, and other public areas throughout Japan, and everyone is welcome to participate.

4. Obon Special Delicacies

Obon Special Delicacies
Obon Special Delicacies

Moving on to the next Obon Festival fact on the list, the Obon season has special dishes, too. Ozen, or food shared with the dead, refers to food offerings that consist rice, tea, fruit, and sweets. Traditionally, the sweets served during Obon are in the shape of lotus leaves, which is a prominent Buddhist emblem.

Aside from Ozen, there are also other traditional dishes that the living family members can enjoy during Obon festivities. Okonomiyaki, Takoyaki, and Yakitori are some of the popular street meals in Japan during Obon festival. Moreover, other festival favorites also include Uji-kintoki and Dango for those who love sweets.

5. The Grave Visit Tradition

The Grave Visit Tradition
The Grave Visit Tradition

Celebrating the biggest ghost festival in Japan will not be complete without visiting the graves of our ancestors. After the rites and celebrations at home, families usually go to the burial to pay their respects to their loved ones who have passed away. Bringing a pail of water and a ladle to “clean” the cemetery is a traditional ceremony. They pour water in order to wash the body of the family gravestone. Moreover, some people also use brushes to remove mold and grime off the stone heads.

Following the washing of the tomb, family members present the deceased with delicacies and fruits that they used to enjoy while alive. At the burial, we also see flowers. Chrysanthemum flowers are popular for Obon, but we can plant other flowers, too. People will hold their hands in prayer after lighting a candle and offering incense.

6. The Celebration Date is Different in Each Region

The Celebration Date is Different in Each Region
The Celebration Date is Different in Each Region

Some people celebrate Obon on the 15th day of the 7th month of the year, which falls in July. However, according to the old lunar calendar, it closely corresponds to August. As a result, Obon is most commonly witnessed from August 13 to 16, while it can also be seen in mid-July in selected regions.

When the Gregorian calendar replaced the lunar calendar at beginning of the Meiji era, different parts of Japan reacted differently, resulting in three Obon date alternatives. Shichigatsu Bon is a festival based on solar calendar, observed in eastern Japan around July 15th. According to the lunar calendar, Hachigatsu Bon is observed on the 15th of August, which is the most widely observed date. Ky Bon is observed on the 15th day of the ninth lunar month, which varies from year to year, falling between August 8 and September 7.

7. They Made Spirit Animals From Veggies

They Made Spirit Animals From Veggies
They Made Spirit Animals From Veggies

Summer in Japan is hot. So, cooling foods like watermelon, cantaloupe, eggplant, and cucumber are popular. As a result, the Obon practice of constructing spirit animals out of some of the vegetables has become simple and enjoyable. 

Wooden chopsticks serve as “legs” that transport ancestors to and from the afterlife. You can make horses from cucumber and buffalo from eggplants. According to legend, the cucumber horse represents “our desire for our ancestors to arrive fast,” while the eggplant buffalo represents “our desire for our ancestors to depart slowly.” What a facsinating Obon Festival fact, isn’t it?

8. The Biggest Bonfire Ritual in Obon Festival

Obon Festival Facts
The Biggest Bonfire Ritual in Obon Festival

In Summer, who dares to light bonfires? Of course, it’s the Japanese! Bonfires, like the end-of-Obon lights, have the honor of leading the ancestors back to their final resting places. On the outskirts of Kyoto, the largest bonfire rite takes place. The event is called Gozan-no-Okuribi, which means “five mountains”. 

On the tops of five mountains surrounding the city, people lit bonfires. The bonfires come in the shape of five different Japanese characters. The bonfire on Daimonji Mountain is the largest, and it forms the kanji for dai. The character is made up of three long “strokes” of bonfire. The local people have retained the tradition of welcoming and seeing off their ancestors during the Obon festival, and Gozan Okuribi is an essential special event for them.

9. A Letter From A Late Son Was Sent to His Family After 10 Years

Obon Festival Facts
A Letter From A Late Son Was Sent to His Family After 10 Years

A Japanese family received a letter from Ryusei, a son who drowned 10 year prior. The letter reached Ito, the father of Ryusei, and it made him stunned. Ito found out that the letter was written by Ryusei when he was 10. It was when he was still in Gifu Prefecture school class as part of the school’s learning program. In the program, students were asked to write a letter to know if they want to be engaged in social activities when they turned 20 in ten years. The missive, however, is not about environmental issues. Instead, the letter inquired about his younger brother’s health.

Ryusei is believed to have returned around the time of the Bon festival, in order to make his presence felt by others. His father believes that Ryusei planned his letter’s delivery date, because it was received during the season when the souls of the deceased are said to briefly come home.

10. Beautiful Flowers Served For Deceased

Obon Festival Facts
Beautiful Flowers Served For Deceased

The aroma of flowers is also appealing to the deceased. As a result, people decorate the seasonal flowers according to the deceased’s preferences. Flowers with thorns, such as roses, are some of the favorite flowers for sacrifices because they remind people of bloodshed. Instead, the favorite flowers during Obon festival include calendula, iris, and also gentian.

Furthermore, the Japanese people avoid numbers avoided when it comes to flowers. People group these flowers in groups of three, five, or seven and place them on the left and right sides of the Buddhist altar in pairs. In addition, after the 49th memorial ceremony, it is customary to change the color of the flowers in the first tray to white.

11. World’s Largest Bon Dance

Obon Festival Facts
World’s Largest Bon Dance

Bon Odori, which literally translates to “Bon dance,” is a type of Obon dancing. It is a folk entertainment with an approximately 600-year history. According to Guinness World Records, Yao Kawachi Ondo Festival Association (Japan) held the world’s largest bon dance on September 9, 2017, at Kyuhoji Ryokuchi Park in Yao, Osaka, Japan. For 6 minutes and 16 seconds, the contestants danced to the melody of Yao Seicho Kawachi Ondo.

12. Bon Dance Instructors For Decades Got Appreciation 

Obon Festival Facts
Bon Dance Instructors For Decades Got Appreciation

Two Japanese ladies were honored for their contributions to the community at Camp Zama. They have spent a combined five-plus decades teaching a centuries-old touchstone of Japanese culture to Camp Zama residents. Former US Army Garrison Japan Commander Colonel Thomas R Matelski sponsored an appreciation luncheon on July 7 at the Camp Zama Community Club for Toyoko Akutagawa and Masako Kawasaki.

For more than 30 years, Akutagawa has volunteered to become a Bon dance instructor at Camp Zama’s Bon Odori Festival, and Kawasaki has done the same for more than 20 years. Matelski was appreciating Akutagawa and Kawasaki for their years of assistance to the Camp Zama community.

13. The Obon Music Project

Obon Festival Facts
The Obon Music Project

Since Obon Festival was cancelled due to the pandemic, Taiko Community Alliance was initiating The Obon Music Project. Since it was impossible to imagine the Obon music not booming out. As a result, temples all around the world have switched to an online version for their festivals. Hence, The Obon Music Project aims to provide Bon-Odori music and copyright licenses for those who want to celebrate the festival.

Furthermore, a number of Taiko musicians have graciously agreed to make their compositions, performances, and recordings freely available for Obon events, both virtual and in-person. If you are planning an Obon event in the future, then those Obon musics are available freely.

14. Virtual Obon Festival in Japan

Obon Festival Facts
Virtual Obon Festival In Japan

Obon is a traditional celebration in which we celebrate and express appreciation to the spirits of our forefathers and mothers, those who came before us and gave us the gift of life. Every year, Japanese people celebrate Obon to commemorate the return of their ancestors’ spirits.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Japan still held the Obon Festival in an online format in 2021. The Higashi Hongwanji Virtual Obon Festival offers virtual musical performance, bon odori, and charity. Moreover, the hatsubon service is also provided to honor the families who have passed away. 

15. Hatsubon Service at Obon Festival

Obon Festival Facts
Hatsubon Service at Obon Festival

Hatsubon is an important ritual for the Obon Festival, which is the first Bon celebration after a Buddhist memorial service to mark 49 days since someone’s death. Usually, families who just lost part of the member still feel grieving and cannot do the ritual properly. 

Therefore, there are many Hatsubon services that will help them to conduct the ritual. The process begins with a candle being lit for each individual who passed away over the previous year. Then, the monk will pray for the spirits and give comforting messages. The service ended by having meals and enjoying each others’ company.

16. They Wear Yukata To Honor Ancestors

Obon Festival Facts
Yukata in obon Festival

We gave come to the last Obon Festival fact on this list. Obon festivities, in Japan or elsewhere in the world, bring people of Japanese ancestry together. They will wear traditional outfits, which have become one of the unique traditions during Obon festival. Since Obon is a summer festival, participants wear yukata, which is a light cotton kimono. This attire is appropriate for the Obon to commemorate one’s forefathers and mothers. Both men and women wear yukata at this festival. 

Yukata have straight seams and large sleeves, just as other traditional Japanese garments. It evolved from a single-layered silk kimono worn by the upper class in the bath to become what it is now. Yukata is made of hemp and Japanese people wear yukata while bathing by the nobility. Later, ordinary folks began to wear them after bathing and around the house throughout the summer. So, what do you think about these fascinating Obon festival facts?

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