Summer in Japan – Obon, Bon Odori, Mountain Day

 In General Travel

The absolute dog days of summer in Japan (mid-August) are marked by Obon.

Obon (お盆) is a Japanese Buddhist custom to honor the spirits of one’s ancestors. This Buddhist custom has evolved into a family reunion holiday during which people return to ancestral family places and visit and clean their ancestors’ graves, and when the spirits of ancestors are supposed to revisit the household altars. It has been celebrated in Japan for more than 500 years and traditionally includes a dance, known as Bon Odori.

Local Bon Odori Festival, Kanazawa during Obon

Local Bon Odori Festival, Kanagawa

The festival of Obon lasts for three days; however its starting date varies within different regions of Japan. When the lunar calendar was changed to the Gregorian calendar at the beginning of the Meiji era, the localities in Japan reacted differently and this resulted in three different times of Obon. “Hachigatsu Bon” (Bon in August) is based on the lunar calendar, is celebrated around the 15th of August and is the most commonly celebrated time. These three days are not listed as public holidays but business slows to a crawl (as do the freeways) since most people take leave to go back to their hometowns. And hence it was deemed a good opportunity to insert an official holiday into the calendar.

The hard working Japanese love holidays and don’t usually pass up a marketing opportunity so this year, they inaugurated a brand new holiday just before (and now marking the unofficial start of) Obon on August 11, 2016 called Mountain Day. It is primarily an opportunity to recommune with nature and hike in the 80% of Japan’s land mass that is covered with mountains and wonderful trails. In a wonderfully balanced act they have paid tribute to both major religions in Japan… Buddhism which is the origin of Obon, and Shinto which reveres and is largely based on nature.

Blue Mountains of Japan (Photo by Miyuki)

Blue Mountains of Japan (Photo by Miyuki)

Mountains of Kiyosato Japan (Photo by Jun Takeuchi)

Mountains of Kiyosato Japan (Photo by Jun Takeuchi)

Japan Mountain Day Holiday Sign, reminding Japanese about the new holiday that starts Obon

Japan Mountain Day Holiday Sign, reminding Japanese about the new holiday

Bon Odori originates from the story of Mokuren, a disciple of the Buddha, who used his supernatural powers to look upon his deceased mother. He discovered she had fallen into the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and was suffering.[3] Greatly disturbed, he went to the Buddha and asked how he could release his mother from this realm. Buddha instructed him to make offerings to the many Buddhist monks who had just completed their summer retreat, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month. The disciple did this and, thus, saw his mother’s release. He also began to see the true nature of her past selflessness and the many sacrifices that she had made for him. The disciple, happy because of his mother’s release and grateful for his mother’s kindness, danced with joy. From this dance of joy comes Bon Odori or “Bon Dance”, a time in which ancestors and their sacrifices are remembered and appreciated.

Bon Odori Festival Dance and Drummer atop (a not so high) Yagura during Obon

Bon Odori Festival Dance and Drummer atop (a not so high) Yagura

Bon Odori Festival Stalls, Kanazawa during Obon

Bon Odori Festival Stalls, Kanagawa

As Obon occurs in the heat of the summer, participants traditionally wear yukata, or light cotton kimonos. Many Obon celebrations include a huge carnival with rides, games, and summer festival food like cucumber, watermelon, and fried noodles. Each region has a local dance, as well as different music. The way in which the dance is performed is also different in each region, though the typical Bon dance involves people lining up in a circle around a high wooden scaffold made especially for the festival called a yagura. The yagura is usually also the bandstand for the musicians and singers of the Obon music. Some dances proceed clockwise, and some dances proceed counter-clockwise around the yagura. The Bon dance tradition started as a form of public entertainment and over time the original religious meaning has faded somewhat, and now the dance is firmly, and warmly, associated with summer.

Bon Odori Dancers in Summer Yukata

Bon Odori Dancers in Summer Yukata

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Tsumagojuku at Dusk on the Nakasendo Trail, Japan