A group of women in green kimonos and straw hats do Toyama's Obon dance

All About Obon Festival: Japan’s Holiday of Spirits

In Japan, there are holiday seasons that everyone looks forward to, both for a break and to enjoy different festivities. New Years comes in winter, Golden Week in spring, and Silver Week in fall. Don’t worry because summer has the amazing 3-day holiday of Obon, made to honor those who came before us with really cool traditions.

Read on to learn all about the Obon holiday and some of its coolest traditions!

What is Obon?

A traditional Japanese painting of a family lighting a fire to welcome souls of their ancestors
Obon is a holiday rich in traditions that tend to vary from place to place in Japan. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Obon (or O-bon) is often compared to the West’s Halloween or the Spanish Day of the Dead, and the Day of the Dead comparison isn’t far off. This holiday was made to honor and celebrate family ancestors who have passed on to the afterlife. This holiday is a unique combination of Buddhist tradition (paying respect to ancestors) and Japanese Shinto belief surrounding spirits and honoring them.

How do they do this? Well, families often gather at ancestral homes, with many people going back to their hometowns to do so. There, they perform traditions including cleaning ancestral graves, providing food and drink for the spirits and enjoying festivals and other regional traditions.

Obon is a summer holiday that lasts three days and happens around the 15th day of the 7th month. Notice that we didn’t say July. That’s because the 7th month can be July or August. July is the 7th month of the Gregorian calendar, but August lines up with the Lunar calendar. Most areas celebrate Obon in August, but a small handful of areas celebrate it in July.

Origins of Obon

Dancers perform the Okinawa version of a traditional Obon dance called Eisa
This holiday has been around long enough that different regions have their own specialties, like the Eisa dance of Okinawa. Image via Picryl

We’d love to tell you about the exact history of this amazing holiday, but its actual origins are unclear. We do know that the holiday is most likely at least 600 years old.

The story behind the holiday is that one of Buddha’s disciple saw his deceased mother in a vision. His mother was unfortunately trapped in the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. After asking Buddha what to do, he offered food and drink to the Buddha on her behalf. This freed her spirit from that awful place. In celebration, he did a dance that became the Bon dance, a dance that is performed all over Japan.

What do People Actually do for Obon

Obon Home & Family Rituals

A cucumber and eggplant each with chopsticks stuck into them like legs
This may look like a cute arts and crafts project, but this has significance to the ancestors this holiday is about! Image via Instagram (@hirokun_2021)

First are preparations for Obon. Preparations for the ancestors include the setting out of an eggplant and cucumber, both with chopsticks stuck inside of them. These ornaments are called Shouryou Uma with the cucumber representing a horse and the eggplant representing a cow. The horse rushes the ancestors back home and the cow takes them on a slow and easy trip back to the other side.

Next is welcoming the spirits with either small (controlled) fires or lanterns. The small fires and lanterns both help to guide the ancestors, but fire specifically help because of the smoke.

Then there is the visiting of ancestral graves. Families take the time to pay their respects as well as cleans the stones, bring food or drinks, and bring water or flowers. Their favorite snacks are the best gifts to bring.

A bowl of colorful Obon snacks in a variety of shapes and colors
Plenty of people like sweets, so why wouldn't the ancestors love this plate of sugary Obon snacks. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Last, is sending your ancestors off. Paper lanterns are used to guide the spirits back to the spirit world. Riverside or seaside towns may even use flowing lanterns that float along the water and send them away.

Obon Events

In terms of actual Obon festivals, they actually vary from place to place. Many places group their Obon festivals with their general summer festivals partially due to the easy overlap in timing. That’s why many summer festivals in Japan often include one of my personal favorite traditions—the Bon dance!

Bon Odori

A group of women in yellow yukata and straw hats perform Toyama's Obon dance
While both men and women perform Obon dances, the imagery of these beautiful female dancers is what many people are drawn to. Image via Instagram (@dancing_junk)

Bon Odori (or Bon Dance) is a traditional dance performed at Obon festivals or summer festivals to welcome the spirits of ancestors. Dancers will dress in yukata and possibly traditional adornments, like special straw hats, while performing the dance.

Of course, there is music that accompanies the dance, and the music will often include taiko drummers, traditional Japanese singers and other traditional instruments like the shamisen (Japanese string instrument) and shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute).

You can generally find two types of Bon Odori. One will feel more like a procession, with people dancing down a street. The other will see people dancing around a festival ground in a large circle around a performance tower. The second type usually allows for audience participation, so those returning to their hometown who still know the dance can join in.

The dances and songs vary not only based on the region but even the town, so no bon odori is the same. For example, some of the dances use moves that signify a bountiful crop, while others may incorporate moves to pray for protection from natural disasters.

Fun fact: There are region-specific versions of the dance with different names. Okinawa’s version is called Eisa and has different clothing and a different style of music, with many performers playing drums. Meanwhile, the Yaeyama Islands of Okinawa have a version called angama which uses masks, intricate hats and fans or large leaves.


Okuribi is a great and picturesque tradition that builds on the fire-setting tradition we mentioned earlier. This tradition sees bonfires lit on mountains or on coasts. These fires are usually pretty large and create interesting photo opportunities from afar.

A traditional Japanese panel-screen art of women lighting a fire for the spirits of the dead
These fires can be done privately, but certain places do them as community events. Image via Wikimedia Commons

The most famous of these events is the Gozan no Okuribi, or Daimonji. This festival sees five massive fires lit on mountains that surround Kyoto City. Three of the fires make the shapes of kanji (Chinese characters), and the other two form the shapes of a boat and a torii gate.

All five aren’t lit at the same time, with one being lit at 8 p.m. and the last being lit at 8:30 p.m. However, they remain lit long enough that, if you’re in the right part of Kyoto, you can see all of them lit at the same time.

According to the Kyoto Project’s website, this tradition was most likely an old folk tradition that was incorporated into the Buddhist holiday. There may also have been more fires on more mountains even up to as soon as 50 years ago, but we now only enjoy five.

A large fire burns on a mountainside in the shape of a Chinese writing character
Even though there's only five, it is still an amazing site to behold. Some hotels with good views will even have special deals just to see it. Image via Instagram (@kj_kyoto)

While there are some local variations on Obon, that’s all we have time for today. What part of this holiday would you like to see most? Is there a holiday that sounds similar in your country? Let us know in the comments!