Wagaya no O-bon;
Our Bon Festival Experience


O-bon is originally a solemn Buddhism or Shinto ritual that is celebrated annually to welcome the sprits of ancestors back home and honor them for three days from August 13th to the 15th or July 13th to the 15th. However, O-bon was more secular focusing much more on a happy festival than a religious ritual to me when I was a child. In those days, I really liked O-bon, and it is one of the most enjoyable summer vacation memories. I went to my parents’ hometown with my family and visited our ancestors’ graves. We reconnected with relatives and had a big O-bon dinner together. I enjoyed Bon-odori (Bon-dance), fireworks, night stalls and games with my cousins.


I took these photos when my husband and I went to see Bon-odori or Bon dance with our beloved dogs in Kanazawa City. The customs of O-bon vary widely depending on regions, religions and generations. Likewise, Bon-odori, which is performed for consoling ancestors’ sprits, has an infinite variety of methods, songs and costumes depending on the unique culture and historical events from each region. Still all Bon-odori has basically similar distinctions: it is a dance performance with easy to learn movement to rhythmical and lively songs, dancers usually perform the same dance sequence in unison and most dancers wear yukata (casual cotton kimono for summer). These days, Bon-odori is more inclined toward entertainment rather than a ritual.


Several times we took our beloved dogs Fuchan (female) and Ohchan (male) to the Bon-odori festival held annually at an elementary school nearby. Ohchan was happy to be petted by cute little girls in yukata. Our dogs also have some types of yukata and they sometimes wear them for summer festivals. I am sorry that dogs are not allowed at the elementary school these days.


Awa-odori, or Awa dance in Tokushima Prefecture is one of the three major long-established Bon dances along with Gujo-odori in Gujo City, Gifu Prefecture and Nishimonai-no-Bon-odori in Ugo Town, Akita Prefecture. Awa-odori was handed down to many areas in Japan, especially to Tokyo such as in Koenji, Suginami Ward and in Otsuka, Toshima Ward. When it got dark, the familiar busy street became a Bon-odori stage. Hundreds of dancers were breaking into a rhythm to the sound of gongs and drums.


A Buddhist memorial service of O-bon is annually held at the Denzu-in Temple in Koishikawa near my home in Tokyo. This is famous as the temple of the Tokugawa Shogunate family along with the Kanei-ji Temple in Ueno, Taito Ward, Tokyo and the Zojo-ji Temple in Shiba Park, Minato Ward. In 1602 (Keicho 7th yr), Odai-no-kata, the real mother of Tokugawa Ieyasu (the first shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate), passed away in Fushimi Castle in Kyoto. Ieyasu relocated the Jukyo-ji Temple established in 1415 (Ouei 22nd yr) to where the Denzu-in Temple stands now. The temple came to be called the Denzu-in Temple after Odai-no-kata’s Buddhist name. Not only graves of the Tokugawa family but also those of other famous people are in the graveyard of this temple.


In 2009, we went to Bon-odori in front of Sugamo Station in Toshima Ward, Tokyo with my son and dogs that wore yukata. Unfortunately, they only got a little attention of people though I thought my dogs in yukata were very cute. Sugamo is famous as “Grandmas’ Harajuku” (Harajuku is a very popular area among young girls.); however, to my surprise, many young people also took part in Bon-odori on the day. After seeing Bon-odori, we visited the Kogan-ji Temple, which is famous for Togenuki-jizo-son, in the middle of Sugamo Jizo-dori Shopping Street.


A lot of fireworks displays are held throughout Japan in and around the O-bon season to commemorate the souls of the dead. The hauntingly beautiful fireworks light up the summer night sky. Fireworks in the O-bon season sometimes play roles of Mukae-bi (welcome fires) and Okuri-bi (send-off fires) for spirits. Mukae-bi is fire which is made on a pile of dried stalks of lax or some pieces of straw at the outside door or the gate on the evening of the August 13th (or July 13th in some regions) so that the ancestors’ spirits easily find their way home. Lanterns are sometimes hung at outside doors instead of fire for fire prevention. Okuri-bi is lit in the evening of the 16th to send the sprits back to their world. Each region has its own unique style of both Mukae-bi and Okuri-bi.


Gozan-no-okuribi (the Send-off Fires from Five Mountains) is one of the greatest spectacles of the O-bon season in Kyoto. On August 16th in 2010 (Heisei 22nd yr), my son went to Kyoto, visited Fushimi Shrine and the To-ji Temple, and saw Gozan-no-okuribi. Thousands of people gathered and were excitedly waiting for the lighting time. Police officers standing on observation platforms on top of police cars were watching the spectators and directing them in case someone fell in the crush. My son could see only Daimon-ji and Myoho from where he was. There are several theories about the origin of Gozan-no-okuribi in Kyoto, and there are no detailed records before the Edo Period (1603-1868). Daimon-ji of Mt. Higashi Nyoigatake, Myoho of Mt. Matsugasaki Nishi (Mt. Mantoryu) and Mt. Higashi (Mt. Daikokuten), Funa-gata of Mt. Nishi-kamo-Funa, Hidari-daimon-ji of Mt. Kinkakuji Oh-kita and Torii-gata of Mt. Saga-Mandara. At 8:00pm, Daimon-ji is lit first, and the rest of the 4 are lit in order at 5-minute intervals.


Toro-nagashi, also known as Shoro-nagashi is another type of Okuri-bi which is performed at the sea or the river. In July 2009, I went to Shinobazu-no-ike (Shinobazu Pond) to take part in Toro-nagashi. I reached the pond a little late, so most of the lanterns had already faded. On July 17th in 2011 (Heisei 23rd), two years later, I went to Shinobazu-no-Ike again. Just like other traditional Japanese festivals, the streets were lined with stalls selling takoyaki, yakisoba, cotton candy, kingyo-sukui and yo-yo-tsuri. A Buddhist memorial service was being held in front of the Benten-do Temple by some Buddhist priests. As I reached Shinobazu Pond before the dark this time, I was able to apply for Toro-nagashi. I asked the temple to set afloat my Toro for the victims and the restoration of the Great East Japan Earthquake which occurred in March of the same year. After torches by the pond were lit, two priests on the boat floated one Toro after another. The light of lanterns and neon signs were reflecting beautifully on the surface of the water.


On August 16th, 2014 (Heisei 26th yr), my son went to Asakusa, Taito Ward, Tokyo with his friends so that they could join Toro-nagashi. This Toro-nagashi dates back to Fukko-sai (the Rehabilitation Festival) in 1946 (Showa 21st), the next year after the end of World War ll, and in the festival people floated Toro in the Sumida River. In 1966 (Showa 41st yr), construction of the breakwater along the Sumida River for storm surge prevented Toro-nagashi from taking place. However, in 2005 (Heisei 17th yr), Toro-nagashi was resumed because the Sumida-gawa Shinsui Terrace (the Sumida River Riverside Esplanade) and the slope were completed. My son and his friends prayed for the repose of souls and floated Toro one by one, with the Tokyo Skytree in the background. Sensoji Temple was more crowded than usual, and Bon-odori was also taking place.


These were typical scenes at Tokyo Station during the O-bon holiday. During the O-bon holiday, stations and airports are overcrowded with multitudes of passengers going home or taking a trip. People must be very patient whenever they buy tickets, go through ticket gates, buy gifts or use lavatories. Many people relax at home to stay away from congestion.


During the O-bon holiday, traffic on highways is terribly congested and is sometimes backed up for tens of kilometers. Every year, the prediction of congestion during O-bon is announced in advance. In 2009, the government introduced some new economic stimulus measures, and the discount system for users of ETC (Electric Toll Collection System) on freeways was among them. Using IC cards for ETC, we can drive on a highway as long as we like for only 1000 yen maximum on weekends and special holidays like Golden Week and O-bon. Eventually, the traffic jams on freeways in O-bon were worse than ever, as expected though this measure was reported to produce great results in the spreading of ETC.


There are about 50 shops of Buddhist family altars, Shinto household altars, and their accessories on either side of Asakusa Butsudan Dori (Asakusa Family Buddhist Altar Street). The origin of the street dates back to the beginning of the Edo period (1603-1867). After a big fire in 1657 (Meireki 3rd yr), the Edo shogunate carried out a large-scale urban renewal and gathered temples and shrines around there. Therefore, shops dealing with Buddhism and Shintoism gradually gathered in this area.


Nowadays they have sales as O-bon is drawing near at the shops selling Butsudan (Buddhist family altars) and Buddhist articles. Bon-chochin, Japanese traditional paper-wood lanterns for the Bon festival, are in the stores. They are lit to help the souls of ancestors and deceased family members not to lose their way. The shops sell essential things for O-bon: juzu (Buddhist rosaries), incense sticks and candles. They also sell electric incense sticks and candles for fire prevention, and new types of candles in the forms of what the deceased liked such as beer, sake and sweets. As flowers for offering to Butsudan tend to wither quickly during summer, artificial flowers can be substituted for fresh flowers.


These are photos of my father’s Nii-bon (the first O-bon). A big Butsudan (a family Buddhist altar) of my father’s ancestors is in his family’s house, so we had to buy a new one because he was the second son. My parents don’t have any sons, only two daughters who are already married; in other words, they don’t have any children to succeed them; therefore, we bought a small Butsudan for two, my father and in the future my mother. Lately such a compact Butsudan is more and more popular due to a small family, lack of a successor and housing situations. I brought offerings for the Bon festival to Higashiyama Yuenchi Park next to the Kobe City Hall with my family on August 15th. The volunteers of the Buddhist priests chanted the sutra again for my father, and they disposed of offerings for us. In the past, people used to float offerings down the river or in the sea; however, now citizens in Kobe like other many cities have stopped this custom in consideration of environmental problems.


We pay our respects at both the graves of my husband’s and my families during O-bon every year and clean the graves and weed around them even though we are Christians. We light incense sticks and candles and offer what deceased family members liked such as sweets and fruits. Many Christian churches hold a special mass during a O-bon holiday.


My husband made a horse of a cucumber and a cow of an eggplant for O-bon and offered them to Butsudan. A cucumber symbolizes a horse on which one’s ancestors quickly come home, and an eggplant symbolizes a cow on which one’s ancestors slowly go back to the next world. Regarded as a lantern of Mukae-bi and Okuri-bi, Hozuki (a ground cherry) is offered to Butsudan during O-bon.


In 2013 (Heisei 25th yr), Washoku (Japanese cuisine) was added to the list of Intangible Cultural Heritages by UNESCO. Seeing and eating these special dishes for O-bon, it is no wonder that Washoku is recognized worldwide. A wooden dish in the shape of a ship for Toro-nagashi was served with Hozuki (a ground cherry) which is indispensable for O-bon. Beautiful and delicious dishes with seasonal ingredients including a grilled ayu (a sweetfish) were served one after another.



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