O-bon is a Buddhist custom celebrated in Japan to honour the spirits of one's ancestors. Roughly speaking, it is celebrated in August in West Japan and in July in Tokyo and East Japan. Here in Kyushu the most important days are 13-15th, but the broader period starts on the 11th, as it is a national holiday (Mountain Day). The spirit boat procession (Shōrō Nagashi) is a special ceremony done in some parts of Kyushu and takes place on the last day every year, August 15th, to say farewell to the spirits.
During the O-bon period many Japanese return to their hometown to be with their families. The first days are for cleaning the graves, praying and offering food and flowers to the deceased. The idea is that the spirits come back to spend time with their relatives and so they should be welcomed and treated very well. Many traditional offerings are made of sugar, often shaped as flowers, but they can also add fruits, beer and even cigarettes. The last day of O-bon is for saying goodbye and sending off the spirits back to the other world, after they’ve visited.
Graves during O-bon, clean and embellished
It is very common to put sugar flowers on the graves as offerings, as well as food, flowers and even sake
In Nagasaki, the spirits of the deceased are transported on a symbolic spirit boat. Each family makes and personalizes the boats according to the hobbies, lifestyle and favourite things of the loved ones that have departed. They use wood, paper flowers, straw and lanterns to build the boats and usually there is a photo of the person or people they are honouring. During the procession, firecrackers and fireworks are lit up (constantly!). The purpose is to cleanse the way ahead, for the spirits to go in peace. You can watch a video here (it’s noisy and a bit far from the procession at times, as I was wearing flip flops and was worried about getting the firecrackers on my feet; no one else seemed to have that concern, though). Most boats are personal, but there are also others made by restaurants, companies and local government. You can even see some for pets!
As soon as you come out from the Nagasaki station, you will be able to see and hear the procession. Just follow the boats and find yourself a good spot anywhere along the path. You can grab a map from the tourist information spot/café on the right-hand side, as soon as you pass the ticket gates. One of the best viewing points is probably near the prefectural office. More information and the compete itinerary can be found on Nagasaki Prefecture's tourism site. The procession lasts from 5-11pm, attendance is free and each year around 190,000 people attend. There are around 1,500 boats, of considerable size, so they don’t actually end up in the water as that would not be practical.
Shōrō Nagashi in Kubota (Saga prefecture)
Although the most visited and famous spirit boat event takes place in Nagasaki, a few other places in Saga and Kumamoto prefectures also have this tradition. In Kubota (Saga prefecture) the boats are much smaller than those from Nagasaki and they actually make a journey on the river. This is a much more intimate affair (as you can see from the size of the “crowd” in the pictures). Except for me, everyone else was there with their family and closest friends, in very small groups, to offer the boats to the river and say their goodbyes and a prayer for their late loved ones while watching them go. Then, most would head home, so they were there primarily for their own family’s ceremony, not to watch a festival. You can watch a short video of some spirit boats being towed away along a small stretch of Kaze River here. Because the river must be kept clean and also due to the presence of a weir at the end, the spirits boats are placed on floating platforms and gently towed by a motor boat. At the end, when it is already dark, a bigger boat, with lanterns lit up, marks the end of the water procession.
How to get there
The easiest way to get to Nagasaki is by train. From Hakata station (Fukuoka) there are many Kamome limited express trains departing twice each hour and the journey takes around 2h. For this, make sure you buy the express tickets and no-seat reservation tickets (which are a bit cheaper) should be fine (自由席特急券, jiyuu-seki tokkyuu-ken). Queue under this sign 指定席 (shitei-seki) for cars with reserved seats and under this sign 自由席 (jiyuu-seki) for cars with non-reserved seats.
If you are buying return tickets and there is more than one person travelling, 4-ticket booklets, which you can buy from either the vending machines or counters, are much cheaper. There is a cheaper option via local train (Kagoshima line to Tosu and then Nagasaki line to Nagasaki), but takes much longer. You can also take the train from many other locations, such as Saga, or take two trains from, for example, Kurume or Kagoshima. If you are far from Kyushu, Nagasaki also has an airport. As soon as you come out of the train station, you will be able to see the procession.
Kubota (久保田町) is close to Saga city, so you can either take a local train from Saga to either Balloon Saga or Kubota stations and walk alongside the river for about 25 minutes to the green bridge. The local train is on the Nagasaki line, which means you can take the Kagoshima line from Hakata station and change for the Nagasaki line at Tosu (make sure it is the local line, the limited express trains do not stop at any of these two stations).
Alternatively, you can take the limited express train from Hakata (or other locations) to Saga and then the local train or a bus. If you have time, you can even get to Kubota at around 4:30, watch a bit to the event that starts at 5:00 and then go back to Kubota station, take a train to either Saga or Hizen-Yamaguchi and take the limited express train to Nagasaki. The procession in Nagasaki will end at 23:00, so you will still have time to see plenty of boats.
The bus centre in Saga is right next to the train station and if you take bus 27 get off at Kazase Motomachi (嘉瀬元町), before the bus makes a turn to the left, keep walking straight on that road until you find the green bridge. If taking bus 18, the stop is Shinrin Koen Mae (森林公園前, in front of Shinrin park), which is a bit closer to the green bridge. Right before crossing, take the little path down on the left-hand side and walk beside the river until you see the temporary stalls and people carrying little boats next to the water. This is the Saga bus website: http://www.bus.saga.saga.jp/diagram/busstop.php (Japanese only, but you can translate the page). Just choose your date, bus number, starting point and destination.