Saturday, August 13, 2011

お盆, Bon Festival

Today, I was invited to a performance during the Bon Festival in my village. This festival is typically celebrated from August 13th to 16th, which means I get a nice mini-vacation from school while the students visit their relatives. This holiday is a celebration of the deceased, a Buddhist custom that honors the spirits of one's ancestors.

My coworker Nozaki-san, who I often refer to as my 兄貴 (older brother), participated as a performer in the ceremony I attended. It was a casual affair that took place in the middle of an intersection. As the performers played their songs and danced, cars whizzed around them, sometimes almost brushing against them! They never broke character.

Some customs of Obon include: hanging lanterns in front of houses to guide ancestral spirits; performing Obon dances (known as the Bon Odori); visiting graveyards; making offerings of food at temples and altars. When Obon is over, floating lanterns are put into rivers to guide the spirits back to the afterlife.

One interesting fact about Obon is that it can be celebrated in July or August, depending on which region one lives in. The Japanese lunar calendar switched to the Gregorian calender (the modern, international calender) at the end of the Meiji era. As a result, some parts of Japan adhere to the previous calender when celebrating Obon, although the August version is more commonly accepted. I like to imagine what might happen if some people chose to celebrate Christmas in December and some decided to wait until January.

Obon is one of the three busiest holiday seasons in Japan. I can attest to this, as I drove to Koriyama after the event and got stuck in traffic. Many people were returning home to visit relatives and family graves. The other busy holiday seasons are Golden Week in late April and early January, around the time of the New Year.

I attended an Americanized version of Obon last year in Beaverton, Oregon. The local Japanese grocery store, Uwajimaya, held a small festival in its parking lot. Along with friends, I participated in the Bon Odori and played traditional Japanese games. Both last year and this year, I have enjoyed myself during Obon.

At Nozaki-san's request, I took many pictures of the ceremony. Perhaps he and I can use them in the next issue of my village's monthly newsletter. There will be a further ceremony on Monday, so I hope to take more pictures and experience some more of Japan's unique customs.


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