Next week is o-Bon, and it’s a very important time of year in Japan. Trains, planes and hotels will all be booked out and roads will be crowded as millions of people take time off work and travel to their home towns to honour their ancestors and deceased relatives. The belief is that the ancestors visit their home towns for 3 days.
One of the biggest traditions is the 盆踊り bon odori—Bon dance. Music is performed on a platform (yagura) in the middle of the village square, and people dance around it in a circle. Some of the dances have very complicated steps, some less so. The awa-odori dance of Tokushima prefecture is famously elaborate, especially the men’s version.
[Update (19/08/2012): I’ve uploaded a video of bon odori to YouTube. It’s from the neighbouring village of Shinkanaoka.]
Other o-Bon traditions include visiting graves and lighting lanterns.
This morning we watched the yagura platform being decorated in the square in front of our local shrine, Yasaka jinja.
The square was strung with red and white paper lanterns.
As night fell, hundreds of people arrived and the area was illuminated. Lots of people were dressed in traditional yukatas for the occasion.
However, just at the very moment the band took the stage, it started to rain very heavily. Everyone ran for cover. We felt sorry for the people who had worked to organise the event. But it didn’t last long; after half an hour it stopped raining and the festival continued in full spirits.
The musical performance was by a local celebrity called Teppou Hikaru and his band. Teppou sings kawachi ondo, which isn’t easy to appreciate if you don’t understand Japanese. It is a very improvisational, recitative form, often telling stories of historic characters.
When it came to the dancing, I hung back at first, too shy to join in. I didn’t know the steps, I wasn’t wearing the traditional dress, and I felt a bit out of place as a foreigner. But I also felt that if I did not, I would regret the missed opportunity. So I gathered my courage and joined the dance.
Did anyone mind, or think it was strange that I was dancing? I don’t know. I was concentrating too hard on trying to follow what the other dancers were doing. Round and round we went, sweating in the hot night air. I am an ungainly dancer at the best of times, but felt I was starting to get the hang of it.
It was just a small local o-Bon festival, but it’s a part of the fabric of Japanese life and culture, and I’m glad I was briefly a participant and not just a spectator.
Note on the word of the day:
Obon is a shortened form of Ullambana (Japanese: 于蘭盆會 or 盂蘭盆會, urabon’e). It is Sanskrit for “hanging upside down” and implies great suffering. The Japanese believe they should ameliorate the suffering of the “Urabanna”.
Bon Odori originates from the story of Maha Maudgalyayana (Mokuren), a disciple of the Buddha, who used his supernatural powers to look upon his deceased mother. He discovered she had fallen into the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and was suffering. Greatly disturbed, he went to the Buddha and asked how he could release his mother from this realm. Buddha instructed him to make offerings to the many Buddhist monks who had just completed their summer retreat, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month. The disciple did this and, thus, saw his mother’s release. He also began to see the true nature of her past unselfishness and the many sacrifices that she had made for him. The disciple, happy because of his mother’s release and grateful for his mother’s kindness, danced with joy. From this dance of joy comes Bon Odori or “Bon Dance”, a time in which ancestors and their sacrifices are remembered and appreciated.