Obon, also known as Bon Festival, is an event that stems from ancient Buddhist customs. As one of the primary religions in Japan, this is one of the most well-known Japanese holidays around the world.
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Obon is a festival that focuses on remembering family members. Ancestors’ spirits return to the world of the living to visit with loved ones during this festival, and Japanese people celebrate their arrival.
While it might seem like the return of the dead is a somber, scary occasion, this couldn’t be further from the truth. In Japan, this is an exciting celebration marked by large family reunions, bright lanterns, and fun community events. In this guide, we’ll share how and where to celebrate the Obon Festival this year.
What is the Obon Festival?
There is a lot of surprising overlap between death in different cultures. From the Day of the Dead in Latin America to Gai Jatra in Nepal, people all over the world honor their ancestors during special occasions.
The Obon festival is one of these occasions, and it’s a chance for families to come together over shared memories of those who came before them.
The history behind the Obon festival isn’t entirely clear. Though the festival is over 500 years old, it’s origin isn’t straightforward. The ritual of welcoming deceased ancestors’ spirits into the home is believed to have come from India. After spreading through China and South Asia, it eventually arrived in Japan.
In the original story, a disciple of Buddha uses his supernatural powers to talk to his deceased mother. He found his mother in the ‘Realm of Hungry Ghosts.” In Buddhism, this term refers to any supernatural being that has an insatiable hunger for a particular thing. Learning this news, the disciple became distressed. He talked to the Buddha about how to best free his mother from this fate.
Buddha told the disciple to prepare offerings for monks to free his mother from her fate. In Japanese, the term ‘Obon’ is a translation of a Sanskrit word that means ‘to hang upside down.’ This isn’t meant literally. Instead, it’s a way to imply pain and suffering of spirits.
As such, the entire goal of the Obon Festival is to free ancestors from their pain in the spirit realm.
Where it’s celebrated
Japan celebrates the Obon Festival in all major cities. The most spectacular of celebrations are in Tokushima, Kyoto, and Nagasaki. These are popular travel destinations for anyone looking to connect with Japanese traditions or even bring peace to their own ancestors.
As mentioned before, this festival originated in India and spread to Japan. Because of this, you’ll find Obon Festivals in other countries of the world, though often by another name. In China and Vietnam, for example, a similar celebration takes place, but it’s called the Ghost Festival. Obon Festivals also occur in Malaysia and Korea, though by different names.
Since there are Japanese communities across the world, it’s not uncommon to find large Obon Festival events in major U.S. cities. The most well-known Obon Festivals are held in Los Angeles, Charlotte, San Diego, Philadelphia, Oakland, and St. Paul.
When is the Obon Festival?
Obon takes place over three days and is usually observed in mid-August. While the date is traditionally observed from the 13 to the 15 days of the year’s seventh month,
it’s not always the same. Because the lunar calendar was formerly used, this event usually falls in August, but it can also fall in July.
How is the Obon Festival Celebrated?
The Obon Festival is an exciting celebration, and it’s normal to see lively festivities across Japanese cities. This is a time for people to come together, travel home, and welcome their deceased ancestors with open arms.
This is the time of year when the deceased come back to their family’s altars and graves. These ancestors are enshrined in these graves, and this is where they rest—even if they’re no longer in this realm.
Visiting graveyards is common in Japan, and many people use this as an opportunity to talk to ancestors and report to them about family news.
During the Obon season, visiting graves is even more common. The family not only visits the grave, but they also polish and clean the space. This involves prayers and the careful washing of the tombstone.
Families offer the deceased’s favorite foods and flowers are left by the grave. Many families also pray together over incense. While people certainly visit graves outside of Obon season, this time of year is when it’s most important.
Another tradition begins before the start of the holiday. In Japan, cleaning plays a large role in Buddhist funerals. Cleaning the home after a death removes any negative energy or spirits. The same is true during the Obon season.
People in Japan clean their homes and offer food and other offerings to the spirits at their home altar. Paper lanterns are lit inside the house, and these lanterns are then brought to the family’s graves as a way to call the spirits back home.
The lanterns are a symbol of a light that guides the ancestors’ spirits to the home. The freshly cleaned home is a pure space for ancestors to enjoy.
Dances and songs
On the second day of the Obon Festival, it’s time for dances and songs. A traditional folk dance known as Bon Odori takes place on this second day. While each local area has its own unique take on this folk dance, it typically includes a Japanese taiko drum and traditional dance. This type of dance began as a way to welcome the spirits of the dead, and it still serves this purpose today.
This dance is easy to recognize. People line up in a circle around a wooden platform or scaffold that’s made just for the festival. This is where the band or singers play. These dances and songs take place at parks, gardens, temples, and shrines.
Dancers perform around the platform, moving in a counter-clockwise motion. The dancers’ movements reflect the local tradition and folk dances, and not all dancers move in the same way.
Believe it or not, Bon Odori isn’t limited to Obon Festival music. Sometimes modern hits are played during Obon season, and this is changing every year. In most celebrations, anyone is free to join the dancers no matter their experience level. In some parts of Japan, these dances last all night.
The dancers and singers work together to celebrate and welcome these spirits of the dead.
Food and drink
Since food and drinks are such an important part of the Japanese funeral tradition, it’s no surprise that these also play a role in the Japanese festival honoring these deceased relatives. All Japanese celebrations include special, traditional foods, and these vary depending on the location you’re in.
Aside from the food offered at the shrines of deceased ancestors, you’ll also find endless street food stalls. Popular foods are fried noodles, okonomiyaki, takoyaki, and yakitori.
Enjoying family meals and eating together as a community is an important way for people to feel connected during this special time of year.
On the final day of the Obon Festival, families help their ancestors’ spirits return to the grave. They do this by hanging lanterns with their family crest as a guide. In some parts of Japan, people release floating lanterns into the sky or down a river.
These eventually burn out, but they’re symbolic of a send-off of these loved spirits into another realm.
Celebrate the Festival of Souls
The Obon Festival is a unique Japanese Buddhist custom that honors the spirits of one’s ancestors. This family reunion holiday is rich in cultural traditions and practices. From the famous paper lanterns to folk dances, there’s a lot to explore about the Obon Festival.
Taking a few days out of the year to honor deceased relatives isn’t unique to Japan, but the Japanese people put their own historical and cultural twist on this practice. If there’s one thing to learn, it’s that reflecting on death brings people closer to life. Start end-of-life planning yourself to craft your own memory and legacy.
Want to learn more about festivals that celebrate ancestors? Read our guide on China's Hungry Ghost Festival.
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- Uyema, Fiona. “Spirits and Street Food at Obon — The Japanese ‘Festival of Souls.’” The Taste. TheTaste.ie.