Japan is no stranger to disaster: earthquakes, typhoons, volcanic eruptions, plagues, flooding, and landslides have been a part of this island-nation’s landscape since the beginning. Even now, recent disasters as of June-August 2018 including the flooding and landslides in western Honshu (most damage in Hiroshima and Okayama), an earthquake near Osaka, and an extreme heat spell that has killed scores of people and have sent thousands to the emergency room on a daily basis. Yet summer is also a time of celebration, with major festivals occurring on a daily basis across the country. People put on their cool cotton yukata and cloppy wooden sandals, to eat various fried foods on a stick, or shaved ice, and watch the fireworks on a warm summers evening. And Japan does fireworks like few other nations: even the smallest towns will out on a show that is around an hour long. Some of the most iconic fireworks displays are on Miyajima, in Nagaoka, Tokyo, Kobe, and Osaka. Although many fireworks festivals stand alone as a solo event, many are in fact tied to other celebrations taking part on the same day. Well, what do fireworks and O-Bon have in common? Many of these festivals are in fact rooted in the belief that the sounds and lights will drive away evil spirits that may cause disease or disaster that so often plagues Japan or, celebrate the relief that came afterwards (rain after a drought, for example). The festivals are not always a celebration of life, like the spring and autumn festivals meant to pray for a good crop or a good harvest, no, the summer festivals are often about keeping death at bay.
And in the heart of summer, in the middle of August (or July in some regions of the country), is the holiday of O-bon, Japan’s version of the Day of the Dead. Usually lasting for some part of five days between August 12-16, it is not an official holiday, but one that most people observe in some way. People travel back to their hometowns, families go their local cemeteries to clean the family gravesite and add flowers or other favourite items that the deceased liked. Candles may be lit and incense burned. Often food is left on family altars or at the gravesites, such as rice, fruit, green tea, sake, and sweets. Cucumbers (representing horses that bring the spirits to this world) and eggplants (representing the cows that return them to the spirit world) are often shaped into figurines for the family altar as well.
This is a time when the normally drab, grey Japanese cemetery becomes a little more bright, with fresh flowers everywhere. This is true across the country, but some regions have their own variations. A personal favourite of mine is in Hiroshima (and possibly parts of Shimane and Okayama), where inverted paper lanterns, called Asagao Toro (morning glory), festooned with long ribbons and attached to long poles, are placed at the family gravesite. A white lantern with white ribbons indicates a family member that has passed away in the past year, a colourful lantern with multi-coloured ribbons is a more generic marker to honour all of the family ancestors. When I first lived in Hiroshima I was a bit confused by the lanterns that appeared in the early weeks of August, but I soon learned what they were meant for and enjoyed the site of cemeteries, from small family plots hidden on hillsides or amongst the rice fields, to the large temple cemeteries, filled with colourful lanterns, their ribbons fluttering in the wind. Although these lanterns are not nearly as iconic as the imagery one would see during the Day of the Dead in Mexico, they seem to me to have the same festive air about them.
There are of course, specific O-bon festivals at this time as well. Many temples and shrines light the stone and/or hanging lanterns that adorn the grounds and buildings. Kasuga Shrine in Nara lights their lanterns on August 14th and 15th, the large Mori clan temple cemeteries in Hagi light their 500+ stone lanterns on August 13th and 15th respectively, and in Yamaga, Kumamoto, yukata-clad women dance with lanterns on their heads. In other places, it’s all about fire: the large daimonji bonfires in Kyoto, lit in 10-minute intervals on mountainsides on August 16th, like mountain top signals from the Lord of the Rings. These fires mark the end of O-bon, as the lights guide the ancestral spirits back to the spirit world.
Some people may also think of lit paper lanterns floating on rivers, and this is a relatively new event, called toro nagashi. The first toro nagashi was held in Sumida (Tokyo) in 1946 to remember those that had died in the war. Paper lantern floating is now done in many places near the beginning or the end of O-bon, including the aforementioned one in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Hiroshima. Although it is not part of O-bon, the August 6th Memorial day in Hiroshima ends similarly, with paper lanterns set upon the Motoyasu River at dusk, in remembrance to all those that perished from the atomic bomb. The more recent tragedy of 3/11 with the Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster has led to Kawasaki commemorating the lives lost with their own toro nagashi on the dates around March 11th.
The most famous of the O-bon festivals is Tokushima’s Awa Odori, but many cities across the country have their own smaller versions. The bon odori is a type of ritualised dance that groups of dancers perform in unison. The dances are very localised, with specific dances, movements, and songs referring to past catastrophes, military battles, or other important historical events. Children grow up learning these dances in schools, and groups will spend the better part of the year practicing for the big day (or days) in August. Yet, it is a very welcoming event, with spectators often invited at the end of the night to participate in the dancing they have witnessed all evening.
Practical notes: August in general, and O-bon in particular, is high season in Japan, and any place that has a festival going on is likely to be very busy, with accommodation difficult, if not impossible, to come by. If you are interested in experiencing any of these events, book your accommodation at least 3-6 months in advance (6 months is better) if you prefer to not sleep on the floor of the train station or spend the night wandering the streets until the first trains start running in the morning.
Note: the Japanese can be very sensitive about tourists/non-residents in certain cemeteries, so if there are signs asking you not to enter, please don’t.