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Obon. Japanese summers and the Festival of the Dead

Obon, the Festival of the Dead, along with New Year, is one of busiest time of the year for the temple. Obon is like Halloween in some ways. For a short period the spirits of the dead ancestors come back and enjoy time in the real world. But for Obon, we are welcoming the spirits into our houses with our paper lanterns, not trying to keep scary ones  out with our Halloween Jack-o-lanterns. There is a relaxed, friendly atmosphere. The weather is hot and humid and the welcome you get is warm to match.

It is not only a time for the deceased to pay us a visit, Japanese families try to get together during the Obon period, travelliVictoria Yoshimura at an Obon altarng back to their ancestral homelands, to visit their relatives both living and dead. At local summer festivals people catch up with old school friends, lots of ice-cold beer is drunk, delicious food is eaten and traditional Obon dancing and fireworks are standard.

While all this festive merry-making is taking place, we at the temple are working hard. From the 13th to the 15th we have to visit the houses of each member of our congregation who has had a bereavement since Obon last year. On average there are about 35 or so funerals a year within our congregation.  Dressed in robes, fuho and hakue, I go to the  house of someone who is on hatsubon (first Obon after death)  and chant Sanbutsuge. I then talk with the family for a bit, drink a glass of barley tea, bid farewell then head to the next house. If there are a cluster of houses who have hatsubon I can do 5 or 6 visits in one morning, but, if a house visit is faraway, say, in the town on the coast or the main city in our Prefecture, one house visit can eat up a whole day. We split the visits between us, my husband and I doing the bulk of them, father-in-law doing those with personal meaning to him, and brother-in-law is given a few to do too.

Our congregation is spread out in the mountains and valleys. Tiny farm houses hidden in pine forests, all the sliding doors opened up, relatives all staying over, futons piled high, burnt out fireworks scattered in the yard. I know I have found the right house as the smell of incense comes wafting out through the open screens and visitors cars are parked precariously on the edges of rice fields.

Its not only priests who have to make house visits during the Obon period. Everyone is expected to visit the houses of all the people they know who have experienced a death in the past year.  They go to pay their respects, they wear sombre clothes, a white shirt, black trousers, and they make monetary offerings of about 3000yen, which they put in an envelope and place in front of each familys altar. They offer incense, and exchange a few words with the family then go off to the next house on their list. For people high up in the towns heirachy, its not unknown for them to visit 30 or more houses at Obon.

The family altars are decorated in a special way for the Obon period. Many ornate paper lanterns are on display, given to the family by relatives for hatsubon,  piles of fruit and cakes, sold in ready-assembled packs at the local supermarket can be seen, too. Summer vegetables like pumpkin, eggplant and cucumber are also displayed. Everything is laid out to be inviting for both the deceased and living visitors.

On the evening of the 12th, traditionally people will visit their family gravesites to "meet" their relatives and welcome them back into the family house. In houses observing the old customs they will have cucumbers with bamboo stick legs on the altar. They represent horses which can bring all the ancestors back quickly into the family house. On the evening of the 15th people will again visit their family gravesites to "return" their relatives to the other side. This is a bitter-sweet time and you want them to return slowly so eggplants have bamboo stick legs in them to represent cows which take the ancestors slowly back to the other side. Often, people will gather at the river to send paper lantern boats with candles on them, down the river, a symbolic way of seeing the  ancestors off until next year.

Chanting, talking, driving,  in the oppressive heat of summer,(this summer it has been over 35 degrees most days) all dressed in robes is exhausting. We pop back home to chill out in the A/C, grab something to eat, before we set out on the road again. Then, on the 16th, we have a special service at the temple for all the hatsubon families. Shoshinge is chanted, a sermon is made and then the guests share a meal we have prepared. This year we made Vietnamese spring rolls for 60 people.  Its a lovely, fresh, crunchy, healthy dish, just the thing to perk up the appetites of the guests who have had 3 solid days of non-stop visitors to their homes. When this event is over I can breathe a sigh of relief....Obon is over for another year.

Visit my friend's blog to read more stories about Obon.

Masako Perera
- August 22 2013 at 22:29

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Genbuzan Shonen-ji Temple, Kamino 2771, Takachiho-cho, Nishiusuki-gun, Miyazaki-ken, Japan 882-1411