The Bon Festival is a Buddhist ceremony where people honor the souls of their deceased ancestors. It is also called urabon and obon in Japanese. The Bon Festival is among the most important traditional events of the year in Japan. It was originally held during the period from the 13th day to the 15th day of the 7th month according to the lunar calendar. Today, however, the Bon period generally refers to the four days from August 13th to 16th.
In the old days people believed that the souls of their deceased ancestors and family members returned to their homes during the Bon period. Before the Bon period, people clean the graves of their ancestors and family members. People also clean the pathways from the graves to their homes to welcome the returning souls. They prepare straw horses or oxen, which are supposed to carry the returning souls. It is customary to make fires to welcome the returning souls on the first day of the Bon period, August 13th. Fires light up the pathways from the graves to the homes and lead the returning souls to their homes. This custom is called mukaebi in Japanese. Each family prepares a special altar during the Bon period. This special altar is called a shoryodana in Japanese. People set up a shoryodana to welcome and comfort the souls of their ancestors. Then they put it away when the Bon period is over. They place various offerings including vegetables, fruit, and rice on the shoryodana. They also visit their family graves and place flowers, burning candles, and incense sticks, senko, on the graves. There are many families that ask Buddhist priests to come and read sutras. After spending time with the souls that have returned home, people are responsible for bidding the souls farewell on August 16th when the souls go back to the Land of Spirits. They make fires again on the evening of the 16th to send the souls off. This custom is called okuribi in Japanese.
The custom of making fires, mukaebi and okuribi, during the Bon period developed into large-scale fire festivals in many regions in Japan. The Kanto Festival in Akita Prefecture and the send-off fires in the Daimonji Mountains in Kyoto are particularly well-known. In addition to these fire festivals, events called toro-nagashi take place in many parts of Japan at the end of the Bon period. People release thousands of lanterns in the rivers, seas, and ocean. The lanterns are made of paper and bamboo, and each one has a burning candle in it. These lanterns, which are called toro in Japanese, represent the souls on their return journey to the Land of Spirits. Therefore, this event is also called shoryo-nagashi, the word shoryo means the souls of the dead people. People in some regions release straw or little wooden boats with a burning candle in each one instead of lanterns. Toro-nagashi are held as memorial services for drowned people and war dead in some places in Japan. Numerous lights twinkling on the water make these occasions solemn, beautiful, and pure while giving poetic charm to summer.
Festivals that feature Japanese folk dances take place in communities throughout Japan during Bon and the time around Bon. These festivals are called Bon-odori in Japanese, and they were originally held to comfort the souls of the ancestors that returned home. People in the same community gather together in an open spot like a park or a square. Then they dance in a circle to Japanese folk songs. A scaffold called a yagura is set up in the center where the Bon-odori is being danced. On the scaffold, a singer called ondotori sings Japanese folk songs while band members called hayashikata play the drums. People, dressed in yukatas, dance in a circle around the scaffold to the music played on the scaffold above them.
The only other festival that is as important as Bon is the New Year’s Festival. The difference between these two holidays is that Bon is a holiday for Buddhists to comfort the souls of their ancestors, while New Year’s Day is a Shinto holiday that welcomes the gods. For hundreds of years, Japanese people have celebrated and respected the holidays of both religions. Both religions are important to Japanese people. People try to go back to their hometowns around these two holidays. Most Japanese companies are closed for several days before and after the Bon period just as they are closed before and after the New Year’s Day. Even most of the people who live in cities away from their hometowns return to their hometowns to take part in the Bon festivities that are held to comfort the souls of their ancestors. This means that there is a lot of traffic before and after the Bon period.