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Ask Udder Smith: What is O- Bon?

August 2, 2010

Dear Udder:

Many of my colleagues are taking time off in mid August to return to their hometowns.  Can you explain this Japanese holiday?

Perplexed in Kansai

Dear Perplexed:

Summertime is the time to honor the dead in Japan, from an escalation in ghost stories on TV to the more serious reverence of the holiday, O-Bon.  A Buddhist holiday honoring one’s ancestors, O-Bon is celebrated at different times in the summer within different parts of Japan, but mid August, this year from the 12th to the 15th, is most commonly celebrated in Kanto and Kansai. People typically return to their hometowns and celebrate with family various neighborhood festivals and rituals to honor the dead.

Toro Nagashi (floating paper lanterns) is a custom often held during obon, where one’s ancestor’s spirits are sent off metaphorically with a paper lantern, lit by a candle inside and floated down a river to the ocean.

Bon odori (folk dance) is also a common tradition during o-bon.  In yukata (summer kimono), neighbors gather for  a community bon odori and dance around a yagura stage. Usually, taiko drums keep the rhythms in bon odori.

Since you are in Kansai, Kyoto has many wonderful events surrounding o-bon, including Matsu-age torch lighting ritual.  Please see this site for more information:



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