We’re always fascinated to learn about other cultures and how they honour their dead, so this month we thought we’d focus on Japan…
Each year the Japanese honour their ancestors’ spirits with a Buddhist tradition known as ‘Obon’. Also known as the Feast of Lanterns and the Festival of the Dead, Obon is held at different times of the year depending on the region but most Japanese celebrate it in August. It lasts for three days and although it’s not a public holiday everyone is allowed to take time off work.
Obon begins by setting out electrified paper lanterns inside the house to guide the spirits of relatives back home. If it’s the first Obon memorial since the loved one’s death, a small fire is lit outside to help them find their way back. Next comes the ritual of sharing food with the deceased, which is known as ‘ozen’. This can be a main meal or offerings of fruit, rice, sake, green tea and sweets shaped like lotus leaves that are left at the family’s Buddhist altar.
While the spirits are back at home, the family will visit the deceased’s burial place to perform a ritual cleaning of the gravestone.
A major part of Obon is the traditional bon dances, or ‘bonodori’. This is a vibrant affair with colourfully-dressed dancers performing alongside a singer and musicians playing taiko drums, lutes and bells. In Tokushima on the island of Shikoku, as the dancers take to the street the special Bon dance known as Awa Odori attracts over a million tourists every year.
Finally, when Obon is over it’s time to say goodbye to the deceased and let them return again to their resting place. To see off the spirits, families light a fire or, if they’re near the river or sea, they help the deceased on their way with lanterns placed on the water. Other sending-off ceremonies include Kyoto’s spectacular ‘Daimonji Gozan Okuribi’, when fires are lit on the mountain slopes.
It may seem like a strange tradition to us in the Western world, but for the Japanese this annual memorial celebration is obviously a wonderful way to unite family members and share memories of loved ones that have passed.
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