Japan’s Obon Festival – the Country’s Most Important Religious (Buddhist) Holiday!
Obon allows family and friends to get together and celebrate the spirit and lives of their loved ones!
Obon- A Time for Those Gone By
Obon is one of Japan’s most important holidays and it is celebrated throughout the world by Buddhists and non Buddhists alike. During Obon, Buddhists believe that on the 15th day of the 7th month, gates between Heaven and Hell are open and the spirits can visit earth freely.
The incredibly sacred holiday of Obon is also known as hungry ghosts day for good reason- lanterns are used to call out spirits and invite them in. As a way to honor the beauty of death and life, the Obon Festival makes sure that the spirit of loved ones are appreciated and honored.
History of the Obon Festival
The Obon festival s a celebration of reaching out to loved ones that are no longer with us in this life. The origin of this holiday began with one of Buddha’s followers that used his supernatural powers to reach out to his deceased mother and check on her from the world of the living.
In this story, Buddha’s follower realized his mother had become a Hungry Ghost. The Hungry Ghosts are spirits that end up in a sort of purgatory between heaven and hell- one full of the Gaki and Jikininki. These hungry ghosts respectively were either greedy in their time on earth and are now endlessly “hungry” in the afterlife, or those spirits that were selfish while they were living and now are endlessly hungry for dead flesh.
Buddha suggested his follower pray to an approaching groups of monks for his mother’s release. Once she was free from the realm of hungry ghosts, the man danced for joy and dance of Bon, and Obon itself, was born!
The Obon Festival Modern Times
Obon of the modern era puts a huge focus on making spirits as well as participants feel happy and welcome. Just like in many celebrations of death and the lives of loved ones around the world, friends and families kiss or embrace to signal their warm feelings towards the miracle of life.
Today’s Obon celebrations will also see thousands upon thousands of lanterns. These lanterns act as a light to lead the spirits in and a memorial to honor their lives. These lanterns are probably the most iconic part of this festival and many attendees that aren’t religious at all come to get a glimpse of the beautiful scene.
The Obon festival involves several processionals of men carrying large lanterns on their shoulders. They parade through the streets as people look around at all the merchandise and street celebrations of fertility. This is one of the most iconic parts of Obon so if you find yourself in Japan, do yourself a favor and check this out!
The Obon Experience
The Obon festival is held each year in August for one day. This festival’s modern resurrection has had quite an effect on its community. Though it is indeed a celebration of new days and new life, the generations from today have found a way to connect to it in more ways than one.
While celebrating deceased loved ones may seem like a sad thing to celebrate to some, the Obon festival is and has always been about joyously bringing in a new season. Essentially, it is a virtual celebration of life. Obon always inspires a sense of hope, new beginnings and creativity in all those involved. Many attendees and festival performers feed into this creativity and share their art and talents with the entire festival.
The day before the actual festival, there are parties all throughout the city to celebrated the Obon Festival’s return. The festival begins as a procession, with a torch lit parade through the streets of Tokushima. Family, friends, and children are all welcome to join in. Following the procession there are dances, songs, and good wishes to ring in the fest.
The lanterns are the single most important part of the festival. During Obon, family and friends will gather together to release the toro nagashi, or lanterns, into lakes, oceans, and rivers to carry spirits back to the afterlife.
Arriving in Tokushima
Many that celebrate Obon in Tokushima come from all over the world. If you are traveling for this festival, fly into the nearest Airport and be sure to have a city bus or shuttle booked from the airport or whatever city you are heading in from. Consider renting a bike, car, or using public transportation if you plan to explore the rest of the city throughout your stay.
Thanks to the festival, these shuttles and buses offer free service after all the festivities have finished up. Be sure to have your travel plans nailed down though, so you don’t end up stranded during the biggest lantern celebration of the year.
When it comes to planning for accommodations and lodging, be sure to do your research. Preferably, find a travel agent that can help you book the best deals and prices for hotels, flights and Obon related events.
A Religious Celebration
Most people in the Western part of the world like to celebrate life and death with birthdays and memorial services, a night at church, prayers of a celebration with some sort of religious ties. While the modern celebration of the Obon Festival may seem to most outsiders as a celebration of lights, it is important if you are a visiting tourist for you to understand all the religious meaning and background behind this event and the festivities. However, you do not have to be Japanese, Buddhist, or religious at all the celebrate this holiday.
Many people outside of Tokushima like to celebrate Obon as a summer celebration to remember loed ones. In their own festivals and gatherings, people across the globe will partake in acts to welcome the the spirits of family members and friends or just to remember their time on eart. Many people still wear traditional clothing, participate in the dances and host their own feasts.
What to Wear for the Obon Festival
As the celebration of life, death, and birth lasts all day, you should prepare to dress for a sunny Summer day in Japan. Keep this in mind as you prepare to attend the Obon Festival . Though it is August and summer is in full swing, Tokushima at night is going to be cold so bring layers, jackets, gloves, hats and anything else that will keep you from freezing.
One of the bigger parts of the Obon Festival is the procession and dancing, so make sure your footwear is adequate. Try to wear closed toed shoes that will comfortably get you through the festival.
Tickets and Pricing
Tickets for ther incredible Obon festival are relatively cheap. Pricing is offered online but tickets can also be purchased in person. However, due to this inexpensive pricing and the high interest level in the Obon Festival, it would be wise for you to purchase your tickets in advance!
As the Obon Festival itself isn’t very expensive, you will be spending most of your money on traveling, food, and hotel accommodations. Check out the festival website for all the best places to stay in the area and be sure to talk to someone who has attended before in the past.
What to Bring to the Summer Festival
The Obon Festival itself has all the elements attendees need for celebration. In other words, your preparation for this festival should be fairly simple. When packing your bags, bring anything you would normally bring for a week or weekend long trip. Consider getting your currency exchanged before flying into Japan to avoid the hassle of trying to convert it while you’re actually in Tokushima.
Additionally, make sure your passport is renewed and working months before you try to board a plane into town. Passports renewals can take a while and you don’t want to end up the night before your flight realizing you won’t be allowed on the plane. When realizing what not to take with you on your trip, use common sense.
Outside of the Festival
While you’re in Tokushima, choose to stay a few extra days to check out the rest of the cites. Many of the local hotels and lodging areas have a two to three day minimum, so take full advantage of your trip and stay a while! Book a walking tour in Kawasaki to delve a bit further into the history of this rich community.
So whether you have been to Kawasaki before or not, The Obon Festival is definitely something you need to experience for yourself at least once in your life!
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