Obon, also known as Urabone, is an annual traditional Bon Festival where the Japanese pay respect to their deceased ancestors, who are believed to have come home during the Obon period. The word Obon/Urabone originated from the Buddhist Sanskrit word Ullambana which means hanging upside down; self-centered or unscrupulous people were sent to the realm of hungry ghosts after they passed away and hung upside down as punishment. Unable to stand the sight of his mother suffering from torture, Maudgalyayana (Mokuren) sought the advice of his master Buddha (Oshakasama). He was then told that he could alleviate her sufferings by making offerings to the Buddhist monks after they have completed their summer trainings on 15 July. Diligently practicing what he was told, Mokuren managed to free his mother from the pain.
After Japan has adopted the use of Gregorian calendar in the sixth year of the Meiji period (1873), most areas of Japan shifted the Obon period to a month later, such that it is held from 13 August to 16 August on the Gregorian calendar. Meanwhile, some areas, like Okinawa and Amami of Kagoshima, still use the old lunar calendar as a gauge to the Obon period, and the minority rest celebrates Obon in July on the Gregorian calendar.
Before the actual Obon period, several preparations are made. The customs varies depending on the area, but generally as a rule of thumb, the following events are carried out.
The 1st day of July or August is believed to be the day when the gate of hell (Kamabuta Tsuitachi) is opened. On this day, most Japanese visit and clean the graves (Ohaka Mairi), clean the Buddha altar, and prepare the Obon lantern (Obon Chouchin).
On the 7th day of the month, the spiritual altar (Shouryou Dana) is prepared to welcome the ancestors. On top of the altar, a Horse Spirit (Shouryou Uma) made of cucumber is placed. A similar figure, made of eggplant, is also prepared as a set. The ancestors will travel to the realm of the living via the transport of the faster horse, and leave via the slower cow.
The actual Obon period takes place over a span of 4 days. On the 13th, a fire (Mukaebi) is lit up in the evening to welcome the ancestors, making sure that the ancestors will not lose their way.
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On the 14th and 15th, it is believed that the ancestors will reside in the spiritual altar (Shouryou Dana) so offerings like fruits and sweets are placed there. On the 16th, it is believed that the ancestors will still be in the house in the morning so offerings will be prepared. In the evening, when it has become dark, a fire (Okuribi) will be lit up to send the ancestors off. In modern times, some people have switched to electrical lighting in place of a fire. In addition to the above preparations at home, the Obon dance (Obon Odori) is performed in public spaces to comfort the spirits who have returned home.
Obon dance (Obon Odori)
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