Obon Festival in Japan

Saku City, Nagano Prefecture,
Between 13th and 15th of July or August every year, depending on the region, Japanese people usually celebrate a festival called Obon (called Bon at times, addition of the letter o before a word in Japanese Language means an added respect to the word). Obon Festival is a time in which Japanese people go back to their different hometowns and honour their ancestral spirits together with their families. On the night of August the 14th, I got on a bus with my Japanese Language Sensei (teacher in Japanese Language) and friend Ikkan, in Tokyo and headed for his hometown, Saku City to celebrate the Obon with his family. The journey was memorable to me as that was my first and longest journey by bus during my short stay in Japan.
At the beginning of the 3 hour journey, Ikkan was fast asleep. He had not slept much last night because he spent the night performing a Karaoke at some place in Tokyo. I placed my laptop on my laps and continued making some minor corrections to my masters’ thesis, which was supposedly due for submission the next day. Halfway through the journey, we started to chat about the time he came to Kenya last summer. His pleasurable experience and how he looked forward to going back someday. Three hours passed, and the luxurious bus we sat in glided on the best highway I have ever travelled on. There were no potholes nor security road blocks, as it was the case of highways in my country, Nigeria. The bus pulled over at around 11.00 pm and we walked down the aisle and exited the bus. It took us a while of trekking before we arrived home, to his waiting kind parents, who had already bought a Yukata for me.
Yukata is a light traditional Japanese cloth that is also used during the Obon Festival because of the summer heat. Before I wore mine, Otousan (a respectful way of calling someone’s dad in Japanese Language) had said he did not know I was this ‘tall’. Okaasan (a respectful way of calling someone’s mum in Japanese Language) and Otousan were amused because my Yukata stopped mid-way between my knee and ankle, instead of covering my whole legs. Well, even if they did know my exact height, I believe it will take them a long time to find my size considering am taller than an average Japanese person. Otousan is a very kind old gentle man, who waited till midnight the day I arrived to have dinner with me. Octopus Sushi was the main meal on the table. He had told us by 12.45 am to wake up by 5.00 am the next day and go to his farm for some corns.
Japan is popularly called the land of the rising sun, asahi. By 4.00 am, the sun is already up. A challenging location for a Muslim person like me, who will have to fast for 19 hours before he/she starts to eat or drink. I did not sleep till around 1.00 am, 3 hours before the sun comes up. I barely managed to wake up some minutes before 4.00 am to say my morning prayers, then I prayed that Otousan abandons his plan of taking us to his farm for toumorokoshi. Around 6.00 am, in my sleep, I overheard Otousan trying to get Ikkan up. Thank God it was unsuccessful. We did not wake up till 10.00 am, Obon’s day. The day the monk will come and pray together with the family.
And he did come, around evening. And I did join the prayers, as an onlooker though. After the rites, through Ikkan’s translation, he told me about the practice. In the room where they prayed, there were pictures of Ikkan’s great grandparents, who they believe their spirits will come back, in the name of Okagesama to protect them. In the room lies a big box, where the spirits normally reside in, but today, being Obon, they will move to a smaller one just for that day, because of the sacrifice to be made. In my short stay in Japan, I have visited for more than 5 temples and shrines, in short, I have condensed a lot of knowledge about their religious beliefs. He left and we had dinner.

Ancestral home
Ancestral home

The sacred place used for Obon prayers in Ikkan’s home. The black door on the right is the box that normally houses their ancestral spirits.

The smaller temporary ancestral home
The smaller temporary ancestral home

The small box middle from both left and right with vertical writings is the smaller box the ancestral spirits will move in to honour the Obon sacrifice.

Considering the large number of people coming back home for the Obon, the Hanabi community had organized a Hanabi show at a place just overlooking the river, made just for Hanabi. Hanabi is a Japanese word for fireworks. It was raining cats and dogs, and we had thought Hanabi will be cancelled that night. Suddenly, the loud bangs of the fireworks reached our ears. And off we went to the scene, been driven by Okaasan. Within two seconds of normal time, she changes transmission. Such an aged woman with excellent driving skills. One hand always on the gear and the other on the steering wheel ofcourse. She swings her body slowly from left to right as she navigates the roads of Saku City.

With my basic understanding of Japanese, I was able to tell her how I exciting the Hanabi was, when she drove back to pick us up. The Obon Festival will be completed the next day, with a type of slow dance called Obon Odori. Will they also dance in the rain? We shall know in some few hours.


6 thoughts on “Obon Festival in Japan”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s