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Wednesday, 13th August 2014
In Events In Japan,

Obon: What's it all about?

August is here and the Japanese Obon celebrations are in full swing, with hundreds of thousands of people travelling across the country to see their relatives and commemorate their ancestors. But if you're new to the nation, this extraordinary event can be a little daunting if you're trying to understand it all. Check out our all-encompassing guide to Obon below and give yourself a headstart.


Obon, or Bon, is known in English as the Festival of the Dead, and that's precisely what it is. A sacred time when ghosts are permitted to roam the world, this Buddhist tradition has existed for more than 500 years. Practically, it means that Japanese people return home to be with their families, clean up family graves and await the visitations of long-dead spirits. The festival itself takes place over three days in August - generally on or around the 15th - and is a cause for great celebration.


Obon customs and practices vary throughout Japan and you're likely to see an entirely different display depending on where you are. Most commonly, people can be seen hanging up lanterns outside their homes to guide their ancestors home, while others take to the streets to perform the traditional Bon Odori dance. Food offerings are made at house altars and temples, and to close the festival, lanterns are floated down rivers.

In fact, food forms a very central part of the festival, with many families booking a family meal at a restaurant on August 16th or 17th. Takoyaki - fried octopus balls - are commonly consumed, as [i]s fried squid, sushi and snow cones with azuki beans for desert.

Where to go?

Undoubtedly, one of the best places to experience Obon is Kyoto, Japan's former capital for over 1,000 years. Still considered the most traditional city in the country by many, Obon celebrations are very special here. Closing the festival is the awe-inspiring Daimonji ritual, which sees the metropolis illuminated by five giant bonfires that are positioned on the surrounding hills. Four are shaped like Japanese or Chinese characters, while the fifth looks like a boat. The moment of their lighting signifies the ancestors' return to the spirit world. People gather all over the city to witness the lighting of these bonfires, and most of the good spots are taken by 6pm.

However, it is also worth travelling to Shikoku Island to experience the Bon Odori dance, which sees great choreographed performances across Tokushima City during the three-day celebration. Lessons are available for those who want to participate.


If you're thinking of travelling to Japan during Obon, it's worth remembering that transportation and accommodation are likely to be more expensive than usual, as people travel across the country to see their families. It's worth booking with plenty of time in advance. However, most attractions and businesses stay open, so you shouldn't have much trouble carrying out your Japan itinerary just as you envisaged. 

Related news stories:
Giant Buddha statue undergoes cleaning (12th August 2014)
The weird and wonderful world of Japanese ice cream (4th August 2009)
Kyoto acclaimed as best travel destination (8th July 2014)