© 2019 by DAVID H. CHAU

Obon Festival: When the Dead and the Living Celebrate

July 28, 2017

 

Every summer in Japan, the spirits of dead ancestors come home.

 

In mid-August, as the sweltering humid winds blow in, Obon Festival or "The Festival of the Dead" is celebrated throughout communities in Japan to pay respects to family members who have passed away.

 

In this three-day event, people return to their ancestral homes. The highways leading out of metropolitan cities become congested as most people who live and work in the larger metropolitan cities such as Tokyo or Osaka come from other, more rural parts of Japan.

 

Most foreign tourists are wowed by the neon lights or the fast pace of urban culture within these larger cities, but the sense of family and traditional values of Japan can be found more prominently out in the smaller towns and villages.  

 

To prepare for this festival, the Japanese clean their homes and household shrines. They pay visits to their ancestors' grave sites where fresh flowers are placed along with the spirit's favorite food or drink. Incense is burned and prayers of thanks are offered.

 

Walking down the narrow streets of one of these smaller towns Kinomoto, snuggled on the northeastern side of Lake Biwa, I see red lanterns hanging outside homes and shops. The lights are there not just put up for festival goers but for the spirits that cannot be seen—to give them direction and to guide them back home to where they grew up as children, married, and had children.

 

 

 

To entertain the returning spirits, bonodori or "Dance of the Dead" is set up in each local community. In Kinomoto, a small clearing near the train station is made way for the large taiko drum that is placed in the center on a raised, wooden platform. As the drum beats to a steady rhythm, the shrill sounds of a piccolo follows to keep accompaniment to the boom, boom of the drum.

 

Around the central platform, dancers, dressed in informal-style kimonos called yukatas, dance their way around the drum with intricate, repetitive choreographed motions of the arms and legs.

 

Standing around the perimeter of the square, I see people from all ages looking in on the dancers. It's almost eleven at night and children as young as three are still out, holding their grandparents hands or eating one of the treats offered by the numerous food stalls (yatai) that line the streets.

 

 

The smells of takoyaki or fried octopus waffles out from a nearby stand, the cook with precision hands turning the octopus balls on a metal plate with spherical holes that contain batter and pieces of octopus. With 18 holes containing 18 takoyaki balls, timing is everything. If the balls are not turned over in time, one side gets burnt. Turn them over too quickly and the inside is uncooked. 

 

Other stalls have barbecued corn-on-the-cob amply brushed with soy sauce, okonomiyaki (Japanese pancakes), grilled chicken skewers (yakitori), yakisoba, rice flour dumplings (dango).  Other stalls have games for children where they can catch gold fish with wands made of thin paper that easily melts in the water, target-shooting, or ball tossing, among others. 

 

Although the holiday is to mourn the passing of loved-ones, the Festival of the Dead, there is more a sense of a celebration of life and the appreciation of the smallest things.  After all, by remembering every year of those who passed away before us, we can understand that we too shall join them in the spirit world hoping that we will be remembered by our children and grandchildren.

 

 

To culminate the end of the festival, bonfires and lanterns are set ablaze. In Kyoto, people send burning rafts down the Hozu River to lead the spirits back to the netherworld.

 

As the departed spirits leave once more, the living make their way back into Tokyo to return to work--a melancholic feeling permeates the air. It marks the end of Obon until the following year when once again, the departed spirits and the living come together again in celebration of reunion.

 

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