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The Meaning Behind Obon Holiday and Methods that Have Been Passed Down

Obon is a strongly rooted Japanese custom still celebrated today. Generally, obon refers to the period between August 13th and August 16th. Many businesses often close their offices during this period. For 2015, due to the weekend, it falls from August 8th to August 16th, making it a holiday of 9 days long. (A holiday of this length is quite rare in Japan. It’s a super long vacation.) 


Homecoming Traffic


People that have come out to Tokyo for work or to get married all go back to their home towns at once. Transportation systems get very congested every year around this time of the year. The traffic congestion on the highway gets so bad that it continues for over 100 km. Being stuck in traffic, there is nowhere else to escape so it’s just hell… Even so, so many people go back to their home towns so it may not only be a part of the culture, but more instinctive. Recently, there are an increasing number of people who travel overseas during this time of year too.

If possible, it’s best to avoid sightseeing in Japan during the obon period. The stores close and regional tourist spots become very crowded. There is also a “U-turn rush” when people return to Tokyo so it gets crowded around August 15th as well and it’s just awful. 


Commemorating the Ancestral Spirits 

But what is the meaning behind obon? It’s not just a time where people take long term vacations. It is a time where the ancestral spirits are welcomed and to show gratitude toward their kindness. 

Here we will explain the proper method that has been passed down the generations.

Step 1

First the family altar is decorated. This is to prepare the setting for the ancestors to come back. What’s important here is the bon-lantern. The bon-lantern serves the purpose of a mukaebi (welcoming fire or signal) so that the ancestors do not get lost when they try to return. 

Step 2

Next the cucumbers, eggplants and husk tomatoes are prepared.

The cucumbers represent horses and the eggplants represent cows. The legs are made with hemp reed which is similar to wooden chopsticks. It is said that the ancestors ride these animals. The meaning behind this is that they come quickly on the horse when they arrive, and they go back slowly on the cow when they return to the grave. The husk tomatoes are said to serve the same purpose as the mukaebi. You see that the appearance is similar to a lantern. 

Step 3

On August 12th or 13th, people visit the grave to welcome the ancestor. Upon arriving at the grave, the candles are lit, and the fire from the candle is placed inside the handheld lantern. Then, this is brought home so that the fire does not go out. The fire is used as a medium of transportation. This is called mukaebon. 

After obon on August 15th or August 16th, the ancestors are accompanied back to the grave. This is the opposite of mukaebon, and the fire from the lantern is returned to the grave. This is called okuribon. 


Related Topics

Okuribi (okuribon) still remains in other various forms. The Japanese cultures you know actually holds the same meaning as okuribi. 

1. Gozan Okuribi

The famous Kyoto Daimonji is also a type of okuribi.

2. Toro Nagashi (Lantern Festival)

The Daimonji sends them off to the mountains, whereas the Toro Nagashi (lantern festival) sends them off to the river. 
Related: The Asakusa Summer Night Festival: Floating Lanterns Carrying People’s Sentiments are So Lovely

3. Bon Odori

The bon of bon-odori (bon dance) refers to bon in obon. It’s not just a fun festival, but there is a deep relationship to our ancestors. 
Related: Uchimizu: Saving the Environment while Conserving Traditions

In Japanese culture, often times, there is deep meaning that is imbued in each aspect. The reason for this is, the Japanese culture sees value in not having everything spoken out loud, and sees value in things holding hidden meanings. Thus the Japanese culture is often spoken of as a culture that perceives. We hope to transmit these traditions to future generations so that these traditions do not die out.

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