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Obon Festival: The Buddhist Holiday Dedicated to Celebrating Ancestors

What is Obon?

Obon Festival (お盆), or “Bon” as it is also known, is a 3-day lantern festival celebrated annually in mid-August across Japan that is unique to Japanese Zen Buddhism- a branch of Mahayana Buddhism that developed from Chinese Chan Buddhism. The exact dates vary depending on region, but officially it is celebrated on August 13th- 15th. The purpose of Obon and the multi-day celebration is to honor one's ancestors. It is believed that for the few days of the Obon holiday, the spirits of those who have passed return to visit the living, so the Japanese people gather with family and friends to celebrate and welcome their arrival. Although there is some uncertainty about the precise origins of the Bon Festival, it is known that the tradition began in approximately the 16th century.

How is it Celebrated?

Obon is an eclectic celebration with some aspects that could be compared to Mexico’s Dia De Los Muertos or “Day of the Dead”. While both of these events technically center around death and provide a way to mourn those who have passed (both long ago and recently), they are not morbid or sad holidays but rather celebrations of life. All across Japan in major cities such as Tokyo, Kyoto, and Nagasaki, Obon festivals are held where millions of citizens and tourists gather to view lantern displays, visit vendors, eat, drink, see traditional music and dance performances (such as the Bon Odori; 盆踊り), and much more.

Families will also hold reunions and spend time visiting and cleaning the graves of loved ones during Obon, making it a popular time for travel as people journey across the country to visit loved ones- both alive and passed. Buddhist temples will often serve as host for some of the festivities as well, where monks will leave offerings for the spirits. Although the specifics of the festivities can vary widely depending on the festival, one common tradition is the floating of the Obon lanterns down a body of water, like a river, at the end of the festival. This is done to help guide the visiting spirits back to their realm and part of why the lanterns are such a recognizable and significant element in Obon traditions. Being the second most common religion in Japan after Shinto, it is of no surprise that Obon and other Buddhist holidays are such important and popular events in Japan.

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