What is Obon?

Obon is a Japanese Buddhist custom honouring the spirits of one’s ancestors. Obon lasts for three days. In Tokyo and parts of East Japan they celebrate from 13-15 July, while other parts of the country celebrate from 13-15 August instead (as these dates lie closer to those formerly used in the lunar calendar).

During Obon it’s believed that people’s ancestors’ spirits return to the living world in order to visit their relatives. Lanterns are hung in front of houses to guide the spirits home, there are dances called “bon odori,” graves are visited and cleaned and food offerings are made at family altars and temples. When Obon is over the spirits are sent back with lanterns once again, and many are cast out over rivers, lakes or the sea.

Obon is beloved by the ‘kowai hanashi’ crowd because it’s considered a legitimate time to have ghosts around and creepy things happening and no-one will question it because it’s Obon!


“Mukaebi” – Welcome fire: On the first day of Obon families put out lanterns to guide the spirits of their ancestors back home. In some places thare are also mass bonfires to welcome the spirits back.

“Bon odori” – Bon dance: Generally held on the 15th or 16th, these dances imitate the joy people think the spirits feel at being freed from the afterlife for this brief period. They’re performed by men and women of all ages, and although they once took place only on temple grounds they now take place pretty much anywhere.

“Okuribi” – Sending off fire: Held on the 16th, very occasionally the 15th, this is usually a large public bonfire to send the spirits home and officially end Obon. The most famous of these bonfires is Daimonji in Kyoto. Five giant bonfires are lit on mountains surrounding the city.

“Hakamairi” – Visiting graves: People use Obon to visit the graves of their ancestors, leave offerings and clean them while they are gone. This can be done at any time of the year but it is especially common during Obon.

“Butsudan” – household altar: Basically a small wooden cabinet kept in the family home to pray to one’s ancestors. These are very expensive and inside you’ll usually find pictures of the deceases, incense, statues, candles, etc. These butsudan may be found in a “butsuma,” family altar room, but not everyone has the space for these nowadays. Offerings are left here to the dead, particularly during Obon.

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