|Visiting a family grave during O-Bon|
O-Bon: August 13-15This 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.
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.|
|Dancers. Many groups that learn to do local dances|
participate in these dances, all wearing yukata
with the same pattern.
|Dancers around a yagura bandstand.|
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.
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.|
|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.
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".|
|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.
|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|
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.