(Contributed by KA Mom Clair Hurford. Follow her blog here: neko no machi)
Family praying at their ancestor’s grave
Obon – Festival of the Dead
Early last week the streets around our kid’s hoikuen, usually bustling with cars and bicycles (for Kyoto), were quiet, providing an even better auditorium for the deafening chorus of cicadasセミ（蝉) singing their lungs out on the trees of the adjacent shrine.
It seemed many of our neighbours had already left town to spend time with their extended family during the Obon holiday. Obon or the Festival of the Dead, is an important religious festival held each year on August 14 and 15 to pray for the souls of the dead and conduct services in their memory.
Traditionally, during this season Japanese people had always given thanks for a plentiful harvest and over time those traditions combined with Buddhist rituals to become the Bon festival. Whilst not as many families observe all the traditions of the past, it is still a time for them to gather together, prepare meals and remember relatives and ancestors.
Families will gather at the graves of their ancestors and clean all around, before placing offerings on a special shelf to welcome the spirits back home. Sometimes lanterns are lit to help guide them back.
Traditional food for the Bon festival includes vegetable tempura, rice dumplings, wheat noodles and sushi wrapped in friend bean curd. According to Buddhist doctrine, the killing of animals is not permitted so there is no meat or fish included in the menu.
Enjoying some cold shaved ice at the festival
Bon dance, once held to memoralize the return of the departed souls is now a popular fixture of the summer festival season with people dressed in colourful cotton yukata.
Preparing for the bon-odori: Obon Dance
Participating in the communal dance
In various places in Nagasaki prefecture, shōryō nagashi (the spirit procession) is conducted to farewell family members who have died that year. In the belief that Heaven is found on the other side of the rivers and seas, people set boats afloat which are said to be carrying the spirits of the deceased and send them down the river.
In some areas, paper lanterns (chōchin) are floated on lakes and rivers during the shōrōbune festival (精霊船). This practice also occurs on other days of the year, such as to commemorate the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.
In Kyoto, gozan no okuribi 送り火 is held on the evening of August 16. Large Bon-fires are lit on the surrounding mountains to guide the souls back to Heaven. Mt. Daimonji has one of the most famous Bon-fires in Japan.
Fire ‘Dai’ kanji in Kyoto
We watched the spectacle from a friend’s apartment with postcard views of both Mt. Daimonji and the North and West mountain ranges.
In the months preceding Obon, pine branches are gathered into bonfires and configured into shapes of a boat, a tori gate and four giant kanji characters on Mt. Daimonji and the surrounding hills. They are lit up sequentially and bid farewell to all the souls of the departed.
Preparing for the kanji burning
We saw the large dai, meaning ‘great’ or ‘large’ on Mt. Daimonji go up first, followed by a smaller dai near Kinkakuji (facing south and difficult to see), then the characters for myo and hyo in the North and finally a shape of a boat. We were unable to see the torii gate from our vantage point.
These events are celebrated quite genially across the city but the characters are far enough away that they flare up silently and magnificently and just as quickly fade away.
For some more articles by fellow KA Moms about Obon, check out these links:
workaholic SAHM with a possible touch of ADD.
Favorite question: Free time? What's that??
Days are spent: raising 4 children, teaching part time, developing a jewelry business (http://facebook.com/offonawhim), and following the lives of the KA Moms! Cooking, cleaning and shopping are all secondary.