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What is Obon? Exploring One of Japan’s Most Important Holidays

During the summer observance of Obon, families in Japan reunite to give homage and thanks to their ancestors, who have returned for a brief visit to the living. Many families set up special altars in their homes decorated with food offerings for these visiting spirits, which may include vegetables, dango (rice dumplings), noodles, and fruits. Candles, special paper lanterns called bon chochin, and incense may also be placed on the Bon Altar. Vegetable animals – a horse made from a cucumber or an ox made out of eggplant – serve as symbolic transport for ancestors to return to the otherworld. At Morikami, we set up a Bon Altar inside the museum to honor our ancestors, including George Morikami. We hope you’ll observe this tradition with us when you visit Saturday, August 16 or Sunday, August 17.

Throughout three days of festivities, communities gather for Bon Odori, folk dancing, to entertain the visiting spirits. Men, women and children dance around a platform stage called a yagura on which drummers and flutists perform.  As the evening progresses, the singing and dancing become more animated.  Lively street fairs complete with games, food, and shop stalls pop up in larger communities. On the final evening, the visiting spirits depart on a journey illuminated by farewell fires—floating paper lanterns.  This ceremony is called tōrō nagashi.

While Obon is a traditional and religious Japanese holiday celebrated exclusively during the months of July or August, we offer a glimpse into Obon as it is celebrated in Japan, with Lantern Festival – a unique fall festival coming up Saturday, October 18. Tickets for members are on sale through August 31 and ticket sales open to the public on September 1. Tickets are expected to sell out and are only available online in advance at www.morikami.org/lanternfest. We hope you’ll join us at our most iconic annual event!

 

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