• 14 . 08 . 04
  • The Japanese Obon festival is dedicated to the spirits of the ancestors.

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Today marks the beginning of Obon, a Japanese festival devoted to people’s ancestors. It’s kind of religious, apparently having buddhist roots, but now has mainly become an excuse (or an obligation, depending on the family) to get the whole family together. It seems like the whole of Japan is currently on holiday, except for us.

The festival is preceded by the Obon Odori, which is a kind of community event. In Japan, all the cities are divided into “towns” which are basically small districts. The Obon Odori is performed together as a town. A typical setup as described to me involves a stage on which a couple of taiko and various other instruments are played. After a long time spent eating and drinking (this is a Japanese festival after all), all the townspeople gather in a huge circle around the stage and dance a scripted dance together.

The ritual is to welcome the spirits of their ancestors back to their mortal home and soothe them, though many people, especially the youth, no longer believe. What it definitely does is provide a spirit of togetherness, and everybody speaks warmly of the tradition even if they don’t take part. The seven day national holiday could have something to do with it…

The Obon festival proper, which begins on the 14th each year and lasts until the 16th, is designed to allow the spirits safe passage back to the spirit world. This involves travelling to your hometown to visit your ancestors graves and taking them gifts. For (the admittedly few) disparate families, this can involve paying your respects in multiple towns. One person complained of having to visit both Kyushu Island (in the south) and a small town near Tokyo each year – no wonder they get a week’s holiday!

The gifts you take are those that would please your ancestors. Consequently, an often seen sight is people pouring sake, beer or other alcohol on graves! Sacriligeous in other countries, this is a way to ensure that the spirits will be happy and will return. Otherwise, they appear to hang around unhappy and cause bad luck, a la Poltergeist. Of course, it is really all about respecting your family and your ancestry, which as I’ve mentioned before, the Japanese are pretty good at doing.

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