The Obon period, from Aug. 13-15 is one of the most exciting times to visit Japan. O-bon, or the Festival of the Dead, is the time of year Japanese people worship their ancestors, and everyone and their dog returns to their ancestral home to pray, take care of the family graves, and dance the Bon dance. As this is a nationwide holiday, trains, busses and ferries will be crowded, so be sure to make reservations ahead of time. Although it can be a tough time to travel, it’s worth it once you get to your destination as you will see some very traditional festivals all around Japan.
Almost every area has its own Bon dance, a dance to worship the dead. These dances are about 500 years old and all the people of a particular area will be familiar with and know how to dance their local Bon dance. The good thing is that foreigners are usually welcome to join in and try their hand at the dances, which are danced frequently over the Bon holiday and often go on for hours.
Most Bon dances start in the evening, around sunset and can continue into the wee hours of the night. One good example is the Awa Odori in Tokushima City, on the island of Shikoku. The dance takes place in the streets of the city, and various groups perform around the city. With over one million participants, it is the largest Bon Dance in Japan. Most of the dancers are drinking and living it up. After all, it only happens once a year, and some communities and schools practice all year long for the dance.
Another well-known Bon dance is the Shiraishi Bon Odori, on Shiraishi Island in Okayama prefecture (pictured), which recently gained the honor of becoming one of Japan’s important intangible cultural assets. This dance tells the story of the Battle of the Heike and Genji in the Seto Inland Sea in 1185. The Shiraishi Odori is danced to calm the spirits of those who died in the battle, many of whom were washed up on the shores of this island. It starts at sunset and is danced on the beach with the dancers in full costume.
The last night of Obon is called Toronagashi, in which the spirits are sent back to where they came from. This can be done in several ways, but the most beautiful is the setting off of lanterns (or candles) in the seas and rivers, each one representing one of the parting souls. This signals the end of Obon.
Here’s a video of the Bon dance held every year at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo:
- Invitation to Bon dancing: The English on this site is not perfect, but it has a guide to over a dozen Bon dances in Japan, including the Awa Odori and the Shiraishi Odori
Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast. Visit her website at www.amychavez.com