Celebrate: Obon

What a hot, muggy, crazy week it’s been! I started off this month thinking that August in Kyushu might not be so bad, certainly not as bad as August in Okinawa. Right? Right???

Unfortunately, the weather this week has been unrelenting, a constant 93 degrees or higher with humidity so thick it just sits on you like a wet blanket. I sweated my way terribly through a weekend in Fukuoka and am now attempting to survive a few days in Nagasaki Prefecture, hoping that the heat will break at some point.

The only ones who don’t seem to mind the heat this week are the ghosts of the ancestors, welcomed back to Japanese homes and hearths for the annual celebration of Obon (usually around August 13-16). As I mentioned in my post on Obon last year, this is a hard holiday for the average traveler to witness. Yes, there are absolutely some Obon-related events you can catch (for example, here in Sasebo this week, they float lanterns down the river) but the real celebrations are taking place at home as families come together to celebrate those living and dead.

Butsudan (family altars) for sale in Fukuoka
Butsudan (family altars) for sale in Fukuoka

However, a walk through the shopping arcades of Fukuoka this past weekend gave me a good insight into the accoutrements of Obon, you might say. Tables laden with incense attracted numerous customers, as incense sticks are burned in both homes and temples during the Obon period. Shops were doing a brisk trade in butsudan, family altars that are installed in the home and normally house a small Buddha or similar icon. Often, memorial tablets commemorating deceased ancestors are kept in or near the butsudan itself. During the Obon period, offerings of food, sake, tea and flowers are set next to the altar as a gift to the spirits while they remain in the house. Most notable in the shopping arcades were the chochin lanterns, delicate paper lanterns often painted with flower motifs that are placed next to the butsudan. Families light the chochin lanterns on the first night of Obon to help guide the spirits back to their ancestral homes.

Chochin lanterns
Chochin lanterns

The period of Obon is often filled with family dinners, local festivals and rituals related to the return of the spirits. At the end of the Obon period, many families take their chochin lanterns (in a practice called okuri-bon) to the family gravesite or tomb, as a way of guiding the spirits back to their place of rest. In cities like Nagaski and Sasebo, candle-lit lanterns are floated down waterways as a method of returning the spirits back home.

If you’re traveling in Japan this week, I wish you well surviving both the heat and the crush of people flooding the planes, trains and roads. But if you can track down an Obon-related event, the experience just might make it all worth it.

There’s a great, detailed write-up on Obon here if you want to know more. For my friends in Okinawa, we’ll be talking about some of your Obon traditions in just a few days, when the island celebrates Obon according to the old lunar calendar.

6 thoughts on “Celebrate: Obon

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  1. Great post covering the other aspect of this week that mine talking about AC and hot weather did not. Obon is such a cool festival! But you’re right in that it’s pretty difficult to see (though I’ve seen many cookouts riding my bike around Aomori).

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