A lesser-known Yamagata Prefecture custom may just be what Obon needs to stave off invasive species of the holiday kingdom like Halloween, Christmas, and Easter.
At this time of year, if I’m walking around town in the evening, I’ll often hear rousing taiko drums and joyful traditional music. Believe it or not, this isn’t an impromptu concert put on by the revelers that always greet my arrival wherever I go, but the sound of a bon dance, (“bon odori” in Japanese).
Part of the summer Obon festivities, bon dances have been held for centuries, and have a spiritual significance in some localities. Even where they’re held for purely festive reasons, they’re a way of fostering a sense of community and preserving cultural heritage.
But while to most Japanese people the sound of bon odori music brings a welcome and warm rush of nostalgic summer memories, one neighborhood in Japan performs its dance with no music at all, and it’s not because all of the dancers have innately perfect rhythm.
Here they come again. Worming their way into the black matter of my brain. I told myself…they cannot touch me. They’re long dead…
That’s right folks! It’s Obon time again. This is when the spirits of our deceased ancestors are said to visit the realm of the living. And so Japanese people have several traditions to make that visit a comfortable one for their loved ones.
One such custom is the shoryo uma which traditionally are little horses made from cucumber or eggplant and designed to symbolically transport the dead across these planes of existence.
In recent years these horses have evolved into a variety of things from tanks to Gundam vehicles., but now it seems shoryo uma makers have been inspired by the hit movie Mad Max: Fury Road and created vehicles in its image to transport loved ones across that great apocalyptic divide.
If the idea of your loved ones leaving this earth never to return again seems unfair, then you should consider the Japanese view of the afterlife. While nothing can change death itself, it is comforting to know that in Japan there is a special time of the year when the souls of the dead come back to visit the living. This is called Bon (or Obon using the honorific “o”) a holiday period from August 12-16 (exact dates may vary depending upon location), a time when the entire country takes a break to celebrate the “festival of the dead.” It’s a lively few days when the living and the dead can once again unite to eat together, drink together and share good times.
The Bon tradition gives the country some of the unique dances that Japan is so famous for. Tokushima’s Bon dance, called Awa Odori, for example, draws over one million tourists every year. Traditional Bon entertainment is so lively, colorful and intriguing that a Bon dance is a must-see on every traveler’s itinerary.
Today we’ll introduce you to a five things you should know about Obon. Needless to say, it’s a very exciting time to be in Japan as a tourist!
For many parts of Japan, this week is the Obon season. This is the time when several generations of family members all come together in one house for a visit. Luckily for the hosts, the vast majority of these relatives are ghosts so don’t take up a lot of space.
But even though they’re ghosts it’d be rude not to lay out some food for them, and so it’s not uncommon to place some snacks or beverages on graves or family altars in the home. Among these you might find shoryo uma, little animals made of cucumber and eggplant meant symbolize animals which carry the spirits to and from the otherworld.
Traditionally these tiny animals are made by jabbing four sticks into the vegetable for legs. The result is quaint but kind of looks like something I’d slap together for my third grade art project so I could get back to playing Dragon Warrior – hardly something fit for the people who paved the way for your existence to ride in on! As such some people in Japan have begun pimping their shoryo uma to make sure their ancestors’ rides are safe, comfy, and in some cases kind of epic.
Obon is a great time to be in Japan–the summer festivals fill the country with nights of folk music, stall food, and, of course, dancing. While the cops may not approve of you tearing it up in a club, surely no one could complain about the traditional circle dances of Obon.
But it turns out there’s a critic for everything!
In case no one told you, it’s obon this week in Japan! For many people this means a well-deserved long vacation and a trip home. It also means lots of fun cultural events. As you may know, obon is a Buddhist holiday all about the spirits of deceased ancestors coming back for a short visit. Tourou nagashi, literally “lanterns flowing,” is a special ceremony where, as the name implies, lanterns are set afloat, usually down a river. It’s a fun way to spend your evening and an incredible sight as well! This week, we headed to Azuma Bridge in Asakusa, Tokyo to check out the ceremony!
As we’ve previously mentioned, it’s Obon this week in Japan, and that means festivals, dancing, and ancestral spirits galore! Far from being the terrifying ghosts that you might find lurking in your closest in a horror film like Juon, however, these are spirits that Japanese people are happy to welcome into their houses. In addition to ohakamairi, or visiting graves, Japanese people also offer symbolic sacrifices at their home alters.
Some of the more interesting traditional sacrificial items are the cucumber horses (kyuri uma) and eggplant cows (nasu ushi) meant to carry the ancestors’ spirits to and from our earthly realm, but here’s one designer’s awesome, modern take on this ancient custom!
This Thursday, 15 August marks the beginning of Obon in most of Japan. Obon is a Buddhist custom in Japan where families gather together and are visited by the spirits of their ancestors. Various festivals are held to welcome the ghosts with music and dancing, depending on the region.
However, one tradition that is fairly consistent across the country is known as Ohakamairi (visiting the grave). This custom involves the family going to their grave to clean it and give presents to their deceased ancestors.