Photo:Photo by © Alma Reyes

Summer Lights of Mitama Festival at Yasukuni Shrine

Ullambana—the term has, perhaps, never been heard among Japanese or long-time foreign residents in Japan. However, Obon, as we call the holiday falling in mid-August, when Japanese take a few days off to visit the cemetery to pay respect to their departed families and ancestors, originates from that Sanskrit word ullam, which means “hang upside-down” (deep suffering) and bana for a vessel of rescue; hence, connoting a passage for “rescuing” people from their hardships. This Buddhist tradition has existed in Japan for over 500 years, and was originally celebrated in mid-July, following the solar calendar.

Photo by © Alma Reyes
Photo by © Alma Reyes
Photo by © Alma Reyes

In keeping with the ancient custom, Yasukuni Shrine holds the yearly Mitama Festival around July 13-16 as part of the Obon festivities. Mitama refers to the spirit or soul of the dead. During this season, Japanese hang lanterns and place offerings at the altars as prayers for their ancestors’ spirits to be freed of their sufferings. Since 1947, the Mitama Festival has lightened up the Yasukuni Shrine grounds with more than 30,000 glittering lanterns or chochin, including paper lanterns with inscriptions and art illustrations by some famous people. Although the traditional lanterns were known to have come from China, since their first appearance around the 11th century, the lanterns have evolved dynamically in their design and material use. Today, they are generally made of paper and framed in thin bamboo strips. Just as soldiers had used lanterns to guide their paths during war, shrines and temples light them at night in the belief that spirits are directed to journey out of the physical world into the spiritual realm.

Photo by © Alma Reyes
Photo by © Alma Reyes
Photo by © Alma Reyes

The Mitama Festival generally begins from 6:00 p.m. with Bon Odori dancing and the powerful sound of taiko drums. Towards the end of the night, spectators join the festive dancing, which adds up to the jubilant event. Performers carry an ornate mikoshi (portable shrine) on their shoulders, which shines outstandingly above the crowd. One can also catch the grand and colorful Nebuta float parade (originating from Aomori). From the entrance of the shrine, glowing lanterns line up the entire pathway, while food and drinks stalls attract visitors amongst the trees. Approaching the inner main gate, one is greeted by giant, hanging colorful paper streamers representative of the traditional Tanabata festival, which reflect radiantly against the yellow light of the lanterns and the cobalt blue night sky. The atmosphere seems to unfold dramatically as one enters the main grounds of the shrine where on all sides, rows and rows of lit lanterns glow mystically under the thick trees in the dark, as though they truly send off spirits to their peaceful rest at last. There is also a special ikebana flower exhibition and a stage performance of contemporary music.

Mikoshi parade © Yasukuni Shrine (used with permission)
Nebuta float © Yasukuni Shrine (used with permission)

Amidst the mood of solemnity in remembering departed souls, an occasion to revel in the ancestors’ liberation from suffering is represented suitably in the Mitama Festival, where sadness and joy, affliction and freedom, and the dark and the light join harmoniously to celebrate a perfect summer.

Nebuta float © Yasukuni Shrine (used with permission)

Mitama Festival Info

July 13-16, from 6:00 p.m.

Yasukuni Shrine [Metro Kudanshita Station (Exit 1) on the Tozai, Hanzomon, and Toei Shinjuku lines]

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