During these current crazy times when it seems that the world has gone entirely mad and most people are so afraid of dying that they have stopped living, it’s good to know that there are still centuries old traditions and festivals that will not die out soon. They may change a little or be tempered down due to circumstances, but continue they will! Especially in culture rich Japan where there are many festivals celebrating life, death, harvest, changing seasons, food (and drink of course – what’s a festival without Sake?)
Many cultures around the world celebrate the memory of their long gone ancestors with festivals, food, dance and music. Personally, I think it’s a great way to pay your respects and to remember their lives. In Japan, the annual traditional Obon (お盆) festival (usually held 13-16Aug) is celebrated in a similar way.
It is thought that Obon likely arrived in Japan with Buddhism, where one of the young disciples learns that his deceased mother is suffering in the afterlife. In response, Buddha suggests making offerings for Buddhist monks who were returning from a spiritual retreat. The offerings were to be in the shape of food and drinks, along with prayers to the gods to appease them and alleviate the mother’s pain. After some time it appeared to have eased the suffering of his deceased mother and she was set free.
This centuries old tradition has continued and it is believed the ancestors’ spirits return to this world during this time in order to visit their relatives. A perfect opportunity for many Japanese workers to return to their ancestral hometowns and spend time with family where they will honour and commemorate their ancestors, celebrating the return of these spirits from the dead. They will visit, clean and decorate the family graves with colourful flowers.
A special altar is prepared bearing a variety of offerings for the spirits, usually with food and drink they enjoyed during their lives. A small horse or a cow made out of vegetables such as cucumbers or eggplants are often made and placed at the altar. It is believed that they will serve as transport for the spirits between the worlds of the living and the dead. The horse helps spirits return home as soon as possible while the cow slowly accompanies them back to their “spirit world”.
Fire is the main element used in many rituals and customs throughout Japan and thus Obon will start with Mukaebi, a practice where people light a small bonfire, or Chochin (paper) lanterns which are usually hung in doorways. These will help guide the spirits of the departed back to the family home. Dances (bon odori) are performed and have become a big part of the festivities across the country, however the music and dance vary from region to region.
The spirits are believed to visit for several days before returning to the netherworld. Just as the festival starts with fire, it ends with it. On last day, large bonfires called “Okuribi” are lit up to help the spirits leave our world and it is is considered the peak of Obon.
Families will participate in “Toro Nagashi”, a tradition where they place paper lanterns in nearby rivers and streams, also to help guide the spirits back to their spirit worlds.
In Fukuoka, the festival has always been a popular summer tradition held at the beautiful Gokoku Shrine, where Obon, “Mitama Matsuri” is particularly important. (Mitama means honourable spirit.) This particular shrine is dedicated to the spirits of the war dead since the Meiji era (1868) and specifically honours those that have died during many Japanese wars and is also a place to pray for the well being and safety of families.
More than 6,000 paper lanterns are lit up around the shrine and the area is buzzing with throngs of people. There is traditional dancing, music and the Yatai stalls selling local food. Sadly however, with Covid-19, 2020 saw a much more subdued festival with fewer visitors and no local entertainment. The Gokoku Shrine still put on a beautiful display of thousands of lanterns and families came to pay their respects throughout the week end. Lets hope 2021 will see a return to the regular festivities.
What a great way to remember and celebrate the lives of your dearly departed! So to all the unlucky friends who outlive me – may you all celebrate with lots of Tequila, Rum, Sake, wild dancing and the biggest bonfire ever followed by a whole pig on a spit braai!
Oh and don’t send the cow in too early – I’d like to stick around for the Braai before heading back to whichever netherworld I may have escaped from!