Sunday, January 5, 2014

Memories of Japan: Major Holidays and Festivals Part III

Visiting a family grave during O-Bon
Today is Sunday, January 5, 2014.

O-Bon: August 13-15

This is not a national holiday, but a three-day festival, and like some other older festivals that were celebrated before the switch from lunar calendar to Gregorian, it is celebrated at different times in different areas, since they calculated the Gregorian date differently.  In a few areas, they still celebrate according to the lunar calendar, which means the date is slightly different each year.  In other areas, the celebration is July 13-15 instead of in August.  The majority of Japanese do celebrate O-bon in August, though, and it's one of three major "holiday" seasons in the country, the other two being the extended New Year festivities and the Golden Week holidays. People whose family seat is in other parts of the country are given leave from work during this time.

Don't forget your incense sticks and Buddhist prayer
beads when you visit your ancestors' graves.
Earlier, I told you that the Japanese tend to use Buddhist rites to deal with death, so O-bon is a Buddhist-oriented holiday.  Basically, this is a time when people stop to honor the spirits of their ancestors.  They travel to their ancestral homes, where they visit and clean family grave sites.  Many also refresh their family altars. 

There's a story that illustrates why the Japanese do this.  A disciple of the Buddha, called Mokuren in Japan, had the "supernatural" power of being able to speak to the dead.  He visited the spirit of his departed mother, and discovered that she had fallen into an area of the spirit world called the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts, where she was suffering. 
Mokuren talking to the spirit of his departed mother.

Mokuren was disturbed to see his mother suffering, and asked the Buddha if there was anything he could do to release his mother from her agony.  The Buddha instructed him to make offerings to some Buddhist monks who had just completed their summer retreat on the fifteenth day of the seventh (lunar) month. 

Mokuren followed the Buddha's instructions, and was overjoyed to see that his mother was released.  He also began to see that, although she had done some things in physical life for which she had to suffer, she was not a bad person, and that, as his mother, she had made many sacrifices for him.  In joy and gratitude, he began to dance for joy.  This explains the custom of the Bon Odori, or Bon Dance, as well as the reason why people remember and appreciate their ancestors. 

In Buddhist lore, Mokuren was able to visit others in the world of spirit, where he explained to them that their suffering in the afterlife was a result of the things that they had done while in physical form (another way to explain the idea of karma).  He taught them that once they came to terms with what they had done, they could be released from their suffering.

A cucumber  (top) is made in the shape of a horse, while an eggplant is a cow (bottom). The cucumber/horse is so that spirits can arrive promptly for O-Bon, while the eggplant/cow is so that they can go back home at a leisurely pace.

These days, the Japanese believe that, rather than the living going to visit the dead, it's the other way around: spirits of the ancestors come to the world of the living for a visit.  This is why they clean the graves and refresh their altars at home, to welcome the spirits.  This is also why people light paper lanterns: to guide the spirits.  

Head of household praying at the family altar, with his wife sitting behind him.
There are a lot of superstitions surrounding O-Bon, and I often wondered whether the educated people who told me those stories secretly believed them, even though they said they didn't.  For example, a lot of people told me that they don't go swimming during O-Bon, because the spirits of the dead will try to take swimmers away with them on their way back to the world of spirits. As you might expect, the beaches are not crowded in mid-August.  (I will have more to say about superstitions later.) 

Dancers.  Many groups that learn to do local dances
participate in these dances, all wearing yukata
with the same pattern.
Individual neighborhoods organize Bon Odori dances (especially in the big cities).  A wooden bandstand (yagura) is erected in a courtyard area or sometimes a larger intersection of streets for the musicians, including the taiko drum to keep the beat.  The dances originate from all different areas, but some of the most well-known of these are done all over the country.  The most traditional songs are called min'yo, which is actually a more modern term for folksongs.  Some older terms for folksongs include inaka bushi (country songs) or hina uta, (rural songs).  Most min'yo are about specific types of work, but some are simply for entertainment or dance accompaniment,and a few are used in religious rituals.  One of the features of min'yo is that there is usually a soloist who sings the verses, and a group of people who sing (or shout) responses and a repeating chorus. There are recordings where the singers are accompanied, but generally they sing a capella, with drums to keep the beat, and the spectators usually clap in time to the music, as well. 

Dancers around a yagura bandstand.
Many of these songs describe the local lifestyle, such as the life of a fisherman or the life of a coal miner.  Famous songs include "Sōran Bushi" from the northern island of Hokkaidō (Click on the links for lyrics and translation.), "Tōkyō Ondo" from Tōkyō, obviously, about the might of the capital and of the emperor (Shōwa, at the time), "Gōshū Ondo" from Shiga Prefecture, "Gujō Odori" from Gifu Prefecture, famous for all-night dancing, "Kawachi ondo" from the Kansai area, "Awa Odori," or "fool's dance," from the island of Shikoku, and "Ohara Bushi" from Kagoshima, on the southernmost island of Kyūshū.  (The word ondo means a working or marching song where one person leads a group of singers.)  

I like the lyrics of "Awa Odori":  The dancers are fools; the watchers are fools.  Both fools are alike, so why not dance? You can watch a video of it here.

Lanterns are lit at night to guide the visiting spirits
the way back home.
Another, more modern form of music, called enka, is also sometimes used these days for Bon OdoriEnka music has the sound and the feel of traditional music, but has more in common with sentimental ballads, and in that respect, these songs remind me of Country music, in that the singer often bemoans his or her miserable life, or sings about unrequited love or being left by a lover.  There are some happy enka songs, though, just as there are happy Country songs.  

Some dances proceed clockwise, and some counter-clockwise around the yagura. A few dances reverse during the dance. Occasionally, people face the yagura and move toward it and away from it. Dances such as the "Ohara Bushi" dance, and the "Awa Odori" proceed in a straight line through the streets of town.  Some of these dances are well known outside of the area where they come from because they are taught to students in the public schools.  Here is a video of one Bon Odori.  As you can see, people participate, whether they are wearing yukata or not, and all ages can participate.

Little girls wearing yukata.
The dance that I love the best was one that I was taught as a teenager at a special Girl Scout camp held in Idaho, where we spent three weeks learning about Japan – before I graduated from high school, before I started studying Japanese in college, before I married a Japanese, and before I went to Japan to live.  The Girl Scouts at this camp came from all over the United States, and had been selected by their respective Girl Scout Councils to attend the camp on scholarships.  I now realize that the scholarship money must have come from Japan, at a time when their economy was booming and they had lots of money to spend on cultural exchange programs.  The counselors at the camp were young Japanese women.  Besides learning songs and dances, we sewed our own yukata, which is pretty easy because all of the pieces are rectangles, and we made our own wooden geta. My attendance at this camp was one of the reasons the Japanese language came so easy to me later, because I started learning it well before I turned 18. 

Drum ensembles play at festivals, and the performances always get your blood pumping.
Friends of mine who have learned to do this say it's a very physically demanding activity.

At summer festivals, there are
always booths selling goldfish. 
At the camp, we were taught the Tankō Bushi ("coal mining song") about the Miike Coal Mine in Kyūshū.  As the dancers move around the circle, they do movements that depict digging for coal and slinging a shovel full of coal over one's shoulder, wiping sweat off one's brow, then pushing the coal cart and opening it. The song talks about the moon rising over the coal mine at night, and the singer wonders whether the moon chokes on the thick smoke from coal fires.  Some versions of the song just used the term "our coal mine" rather than the name of the Miike Mine.

Since I knew that dance pretty well, I participated in it with abandon, delighting my Japanese friends and acquaintances. (I still remember all the steps.)  I also enjoyed wearing a yukata (light cotton kimono) and geta (wooden sandals).  One year I went out to the local Bon Odori in my suburb of Sakai city, and two housewives stopped me and told me in hushed voices that my yukata was very pretty, but I was wearing it wrapped the wrong way.  I knew better, but somehow got mixed up as I was putting it on.  They spirited me away to a secluded place.  By this time, several ladies were with us and they formed a human wall as they hurriedly re-wrapped my yukata correctly. As I explained in a previous post, dead bodies are buried or cremated in a kimono that is wrapped the opposite way, which is why the ladies were so horrified. Later, my friend Mrs. Tanaka teased me about it, which meant that my gaffe had become the gossip of the neighborhood.  (But then, everything I did – or didn't do – was the gossip of the neighborhood.)

This Chinese character means "big" or "great".
Two big events occur at the culmination of O-Bon.  One is the lighting of huge bonfires on a mountainside near Kyōto.  Thousands of people travel to Kyōto for the Daimonji Gozan Okuribi Fire Festival, held at the culmination of the O-bon festivities.  The fires are lit in the same sites each year, and all together each group of fires spells out various Chinese characters.  The most famous of these fires is the character  大, which means "big"  or "great."   It is lit at 8 p.m. and allowed to burn for only about 30 minutes.  Four other fires are also lit, at ten-minute intervals,  in the shape of Chinese characters or distinctive shapes, such as the torii gate. By 8:30, all five fires can be seen burning at once, and there are certain places in the city where all of them can be seen at the same time.  At other times of the year, you can sometimes make out the shapes of the places where the fires were lit.

A lot of people coverge on Kyōto to watch these fires.
Lanterns being floated on a river.  I would be willing to
bet this was taken in Osaka.
The other culminating activity is Tōrō Nagashi, where lighted paper lanterns are floated down rivers out to sea, to escort the spirits of the dead back to the world of spirits.  The lanterns are dedicated to family members who have died, especially in the past year, with the names of the deceased written in calligraphy on the lanterns.  This particular ceremony is also done to commemorate those lost in the bombings of Hiroshima, which occurred on August 6, and the bombing of Nagasaki, which occurred on August 9. (There are seven rivers in Hiroshima, so it's quite a production!)  It has been done, as well, to commemorate those who died on Japan Airlines Flight 123, a domestic flight that crashed into a mountainside on August 12, 1986.  In Hawaii, it is done to commemorate the end of World War II.

Lanterns floating out to sea at the end of O-Bon.  Click to enlarge.

A lantern lit in Nagasaki with a wish for world peace

 O-Bon is celebrated in other countries, wherever there is a community of Japanese, usually in August, especially if there is a local Buddhist temple in the area.  San Francisco and Los Angeles, California, each have one, and there are local celebrations all over the state of Hawaii.  Even St. Paul, Minnesota, has one.   

Here are some recordings so you can hear the songs:  

Sōran Bushi (Mom, this is the song Choji tried to sing for us when he visited.)

Tanko Bushi (coal miner's song)

Respect for the Aged Day (Keirō no Hi): Third Monday in September

Besides visiting cemeteries, people also visit shrines and altars with food offerings. At the end of the festival, they let loose lighted paper lanterns on riverbanks to symbolize the return of the spirits to the otherworld. This farewell is called
60th birthday celebrant
The word keirō means "respect for the aged."  It's been my experience that when a culture values a particular concept very highly, there is usually a one-word expression for it. 

This national holiday was established in 1966 and set on September 15.  Since 2000, the date was changed to the third Monday of September, in line with the Happy Monday System.  Before 1966, it was celebrated in Hyōgo Prefecture as "Old Folks' Day" (Toshiyori no Hi).  

There are no traditional activities, but individual families may elect to celebrate their elders.  A person's 60th birthday, called kanreki,  is considered extra special, and I do remember celebrating that for my father-in-law.  We did it on his actual birthday, though, not on Keirō no Hi.  We simply went to a restaurant, where we ordered some special dishes for the occasion.  One reason that 60 is so special is that the Japanese have appropriated the Chinese idea of the twelve-year cycle, and on your 60th birthday, you have lived through five of these cycles and you become "born again."  People who are honored on this birthday wear red, to signify that they are like a baby again.  Why red?  Well, the word for baby is aka-chan, which translates literally as "little red".  Anyone who has seen a baby's face when it's crying should be able to figure out why babies are called "liitle reds."  There are other special birthdays after the 60th, but I'll leave those for another post.

Autumnal Equinox Day (Shūbun no Hi): September 22 or 23

Japanese maple trees are gorgeous.  Their tiny leaves
give the tree a delicate appearance.
As I mentioned in yesterday's post, Japanese visit graves on the equinoxes, as well as during O-Bon.  This holiday was not declared as a public holiday until 1947, and just like the first day of spring, the public holiday intentionally lacks any religious associations.  In 2014, the holiday will fall on Tuesday, September 23, and in 2015, it will be on Wednesday, September 23.  Unless you have relatives whose grave site you have to clean up, there is not that much to do on this holiday except take a break from work. 

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