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Japanese Festivals: Obon

30 Apr 2015 | by Charlotte Bradley
Travel to Japan comes to a climax in August at the height of the Obon celebration - the Japanese Festival of the Dead. A time for remembering both the recently deceased and long-dead ancestors, many people choose to head home to be with their families during this highly spiritual time. For this is the week during which it is believed the spirits of the departed return to the world. It is not uncommon to see new flowers placed on graves or outside doors. If you're interested in travelling to Japan during this very special time, be sure to journey to some of the famous festivals that commemorate the holiday.

In Tokyo...

You're in for a treat if you're in Tokyo during Bon. The fun starts on the evening of August 13th with the traditional lighting up of the Sumida River Toro Nagashi. Locals take a floating lantern and light it before sending it on its way on the dark waters - a journey representative of the deceased.

Visitors to Japan during Obon usually express surprise that the Festival of the Dead is so, well, happy. People take to the streets - dancing, singing and generally enjoying themselves with friends and family members. A great place to experience the atmosphere of celebration is Tsukiji Hongan-ji Temple, which holds a special matsuri every year. Between the designated Bon days, there is taiko drumming and group dancing every night, while August 2nd has, for some reason, always been designated Fancy Dress Day.

Hibiya Park in Marunouchi Ondo also holds an annual dance festival in time for Obon. Performers create incredible displays around the stunning fountain that is at the centre of the green space. Indeed, the jets of water majestically change colour as the dancing continues, creating quite the spectacle. All are welcome to attend, free of charge, although attendees are advised that the show is sometimes cancelled in case of rain.

In Kyoto…

Japan's ancient capital celebrates Obon in a big way, with the Daimonji celebration being the main attraction. Across the gigantic mountains that rise around the city like the vertebrae of some gigantic creature, there are scribed a number of gigantic symbols symbolising the journey to and from the Underworld. Every year, for the last night of the Obon celebrations, these are set aflame and can be seen quite clearly from the city streets. Throughout the city, thousands of Japanese people congregate in places where they can see these magnificent symbols, so that they can wave goodbye to the spirits of their deceased ancestors for another year.

Aside from the Daimonji fires, you can expect a convivial atmosphere throughout the city, with thousands of families choosing to head out to restaurants and celebrating with gusto in karaoke bars. The dance festivals that take place in Tokyo can also be found here in Japan's ancient capital. Visit any of the major temples during the sacred Bon days and you will doubtless find much music and movement.

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