August 10, 2007

Obon? I wondered too.

Obon-- August 13th to 16th-- is when, along with New Year's Day, the extended family gathers. Obon is a kind of spiritual family reunion or memorial day in Japan.

Although not a national holiday, most employees have it off, and some people manage a week or ten days. This is also school summer holidays, so everything-- from transportation to holiday areas-- is packed.

Obon is observed somewhat differently from family to family and area to area-- fireworks, boat parades, lantern floats-- but some things are consistent. You can count on seeing at least some men and women out in yukatas (colorful cotton summer version of the kimono) who are themselves out to view fireworks, a parade or traditional drumming, to participate in traditional dancing or to visit a festivals, temple or family gravesite.

In 2004, my family was invited to a bon odori (bon dance) [photos]

It is usually held in a park or schoolyard in the evening, when it is cooler. Neighbors gather and share refreshments before the bon odori.

The neighborhood ladies practiced the dances in the weeks leading up to Obon, but they encouraged everyone to join in and follow the simple steps and motions as they moved in a wide ring to the beat of a drum and recorded odori music. Hand gestures, including a fan, show actions or forms such as harvesting rice, a river, a boat, a butterfly or a flower.

I started taking pictures with my PDA (hence the low quality-- sorry) but I was quickly herded into the circle by a couple of ladies... it was fun!

The main activity of Obon is to pay respect to your ancestors-- usually by visiting the family tomb, or at home altars or temples. The opening observances can include lighting lanterns, firecrackers or fireworks or presenting decorative offerings of food.

In Nagano, birch bark is commonly burnt-- 'Mukaebi' meaning, 'welcoming fire'. Then, at the end of Obon, when the visiting spirits return, birch bark is again burnt -- this is 'Okuribi' meaning, 'send off fire'.

Another well-known end for Obon is the placing of floating lanterns into rivers, lakes or the sea to guide the spirits back into their world.

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