Obon, A Door Between Two Worlds
I remember traveling to Nagasaki one August of many years ago. I was enjoying the summertime, strolling along the wharf, with no precise plan for the night.
At one point, I saw a bunch of men dressed in what looked like traditional costumes carrying heavy boats. Yes, you read right, boats but on wheels. They were pulling them along the streets, turning them here and there, shouting, while some other people would play the drums and sing along...
Back then I thought it was an isolated event, maybe someting organized for the summer nights, and I was impressed by the dedication and the strenght such a show required. Now I know these people were not putting up a show, but were celebrating Obon, a buddhist tradition of paying homage to the spririts of the deceased ancestors.
The Obon festivities are strongly felt by the Japanese population, although the way they are celebrated can differ for various areas in Japan.
What's in common is the wish to reconnect with the spirits of the ancestors; at the beginning and at the end of the Obon period, it is common to lit paper lanterns around houses and temples and graves, because the spirits can find their way in and out of this world by following the light.
Another common theme is summer exodus: Obon falls in Summer, between July and August depending on what events calendar is followed, but usually it is in the middle of August when most people take long-ish vacation and travel in order to reach the cities of origin, so that they can pay respect to the spirits, by visiting the cemetery, cleaning the graves of the deceased and celebrating. The celebrations usually take form of a dance, called Bon Odori, which is meant to accompany the spirits in their travels between world (and also to give people yet another reason to drink and party,hehe).
Each big or small neighborhood puts up their tower stage, where singers and musicians stand and around it people gather every evening for two or three consecutive days to dance the neighborhood theme music. Everywhere is a feast of lanterns, grilled meat on sticks, hand fans and cold beers.
As for the case of Nagasaki, there are other peculiar ways to celebrate Obon in other areas of Japan. For example, in Kyoto huge bonfires in the shape of Japanese ideograms or just drawings are setup on the mountain sides around the city and at night they are set on fire. visible all around the city and from very very far away. The night show is very impressive. Surely, the spirits of the Japanese ancestors won't have problems in following the light and return to visit their former homes!
In Tokushima, the dance is taken up to a level of performance that has no equals in Japan. More than a dance looks like a parade, with dancers lining along the main streets, wearing beautiful costumes and putting up a great show that is followed by millions of people every year.
What happens in the bigger cities, for example Tokyo, during Obon is somewhat magic: road traffic is reduced, trains are empty, offices are quiet. Which, for the city that never sleeps, it means a lot.
Probably it is a bit late to join the obon parties, but it is something to keep in mind for next year. Don't let Obon find you unprepared!