the whole family
all with white hair and canes
visiting graves

Obon or just Bon is a Japanese Buddhist custom to honor the spirits of one’s ancestors. This Buddhist-Confucian 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.

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.

Shichigatsu Bon” (Bon in July) is based on the solar calendar and is celebrated around 15 July in eastern Japan (Kantō region such as Tokyo, Yokohama and the Tohoku region), coinciding with Chūgen.

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. “Kyu Bon” (Old Bon) is celebrated on the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, and so differs each year.

Kyu Bon” is celebrated in areas like the northern part of the Kantō region, Chūgoku region, Shikoku, and the Okinawa Prefecture.

These three days are not listed as public holidays, but it is customary that people are given leave.

Bon Odori, meaning simply Bon dance, is a style of dancing performed during Obon. Originally a Nenbutsu folk dance to welcome the spirits of the dead, the style of celebration varies in many aspects from region to region. Each region has a local dance, as well as different music. The music can be songs specifically pertinent to the spiritual message of Obon, or local min’yō folk songs. Consequently, the Bon dance will look and sound different from region to region. 

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. Some dances reverse during the dance, though most do not. At times, people face the yagura and move towards and away from it. 

The dance of a region can depict the area’s history and specialization. 

There are other ways in which a regional Bon dance can vary. Some dances involve the use of different kinds of fans, others involve the use of small towels called tenugui which may have colorful designs. Some require the use of small wooden clappers, or “kachi-kachi” during the dance. The “Hanagasa Odori” of Yamagata is performed with a straw hat that has been decorated with flowers.

The music that is played during the Bon dance is not limited to Obon music and min’yo; some modern enka hits and kids’ tunes written to the beat of the “ondo” are also used to dance to during Obon season.

The Bon dance tradition is said to have started in the later years of the Muromachi period as a public entertainment. In the course of time, the original religious meaning has faded, and the dance has become associated with summer.

Japan’s unique Obon Festival, an ancient religious rite to honor the souls of one’s ancestors, is held throughout Japan. In Kyoto, most of the main public and family Obon rituals take place between the 14th and the 16th of August, however there are quite a few before and after this period as well.

Manto and Sento Ceremonies

Manto (ten thousand lights) and Sento (one thousand lights) ceremonies are memorial services held during Obon for the spirits of the departed. By the flickering lights of thousands of lanterns or candles, people ask their ancestors for guidance. Manto ceremonies can be seen at many major temples throughout the year.

8/5 Daigo Temple

500 lanterns and 600 paper lanterns are lit up. The hall and five-story pagoda are also illuminated beautifully. A subtle and profound atmosphere; a few min. walk from Daigo Stn. on the Tozai subway line; Tel: 571-0002.

8/8-10 & 16 Rokuharamitsu-ji Temple
108 lanterns are arranged in the shape of the Chinese character dai or big. On Matsubara, east of Yamato-oji, Higashiyama-ku (close to Rokudo Chinno-ji); Tel: 561-6980.

8/9-16 Mibu Temple
Invocations are given at 20:00-20:30. A 1,000 candles and 1,100 lanterns are lit every night from dusk to 22:00. Special temple dance performances are held on the 9th and 16th; Tel: 841-3381.

8/14-16 Higashi Otani Cemetery
At this ancient cemetery, the ashes of the 13th century priest Shinran and 20,000 of his followers are entombed. Candles and lanterns are placed on all the tombstones from 19:00 to 21:00. The cemetery, set high on a hillside is also a good place to cool off and enjoy fine views of the city; on the mountainside southeast of Yasaka Shrine; Tel: 561-0777.

8/14-16 Kurumazaki Shrine
In this Shinto-style light ceremony, three-sided lanterns made of red, white, yellow, or green paper are lit, and prayers are said to bring success in business, the performing arts, and safety. From 8:00 to 22:00; Tel: 861-0039.

8/16 Togetsukyo Bridge 
At dusk on August 16th, two floating lantern ceremonies, or manto nagashi, will be held: one at Arashiyama’s Togetsukyo Bridge and another at Hirosawa Pond. Wood and paper lanterns with candles inside are set adrift, as a way to help lead the ancestral spirits back to the other world. In Arashiyama, thousands are set afloat.

8/16  Hirosawa Pond

8/23 & 24 Adashino Nembutsu-ji Temple
During this ceremony (reservation by mail accepted from 6/15; limited to 2,000 people), while priests chant sutras, candles are lit in the 8,000 stone lanterns on the temple grounds from 17:30 to 20:30; Tel: 861-2221.