What Is Obon?
Bon (盆), or Obon (お盆) is a midsummer festival not unlike Mexico’s Day of the Dead. According to Buddhist belief, ancestors’ spirits are believed to come back for a visit once a year from “ano-yo,” (あの世) the netherworld to “kono-yo,” (この世) this world, riding on horses and towing their belongings on the backs of cows. It’s important to welcome them properly, spend meaningful time together, and send them off again until the next year.
Is Obon A National Holiday?
Obon is not a national holiday. However, it is just as important an event as New Year’s. Like New Year’s, it’s a time for people to take off work, go back to their hometowns, and spend time with family.
When Is Obon?
Like many traditional Japanese holidays, Obon falls on different dates from region to region. According to the solar calendar, “Shin No Bon” (新の盆), meaning New Bon, falls between July 13 and 15. However, most of Japan follows the lunar calendar dates, celebrating Obon between August 13-15, called “Kyu Bon,” (旧盆) Old Bon or “Tsuki-Okure No Bon,” (月遅れの盆) Month-Later-Bon.
How Do People Celebrate Obon?
For religious families, preparations for Obon begin on the first of the month with a visit to the family gravesite, “ohaka mairi,” (御墓参り) a cleaning of the grave and of the family Buddhist altar, and getting out the “bon chochin,” (盆提灯) Bon Lanterns.
Obon Fact 1: Did you know that white lanterns are hung the first year after a family member passes away? This first memorial Obon is called “Ara-Bon,” “Nii-Bon” (新盆) or “Hatsu-Bon” (初盆).
On this day, families make special decorations and put seasonal food offerings on a special shelf dedicated to their family members who have passed away. One classic decoration is the “shouryou-uma” (精霊馬) and “shouryou-ushi,” (精霊牛) respectively a cucumber and an eggplant with toothpicks for legs. The cucumber horse symbolizes the spirits hurrying from the netherworld to this world, while the eggplant cow symbolizes the spirits leaving slowly and reluctantly.
Obon Fact 2: Tanabata, the Star Festival celebrated on July 7th coincides with Shin-No-Bon, which is also celebrated in July. “Tana,” (棚) in Tanabata can also mean “shelf.”
Where open fires are allowed, people light hemp reed bonfires or “mukae-bi” (迎え火) to guide the spirits home.
These are the days that are reserved for spending time with the visiting spirits. Fruits and alcohol are set out as offerings.
After nightfall on the final day of Obon, farewell bonfires or “okuri-bi” (送り火) are lit to send the spirits safely back to the netherworld. In Kyoto, an oversized farewell bonfire known as “Daimonji” (大文字) is lit every year in the shape of the kanji letter “dai,” (大) which means big.
In some cases, lanterns are also floated downriver, which has given rise to a summer event called “toro nagashi” (灯籠流し).
Although Obon was originally a small, somber family event, these days it has become very public and lively. Awa-Odori is a type of “bon odori” (盆踊り) Bon Dance originating in Tokushima Prefecture, is a sight to see at least once in your lifetime. The beautiful summer kimonos, the pointy straw hats of the ladies, their mincing steps and graceful hand movements, and the sometimes wildly acrobatic moves of the male dancers will leave a lasting impression on your memory.
Awa Odori (Watch a Youtube video here)
Daimonji (Watch a Youtube video here)
What Do People Eat During Obon?
Japanese holidays always mean food, and Obon is no exception. Even if you don’t wish to partake in the religious aspects of this event, you can use this event as an excuse to learn more about Japanese culture and eat more Japanese food this summer!
Dango are sticky balls of rice cake, usually eaten on a skewer with sweet toppings. During Obon, they are eaten three times. First are the “mukae-dango,” (迎え団子) welcoming cakes, next are the “osonae dango,” (お供え団子) offering cakes, and last are the “okuri-dango” (送り団子) sending off cakes. This Obon season, why not enjoy dango?
Although dango might be trickier to find, your local Asian market most likely has a similar rice cake called “daifuku,” which is fruit-flavored or filled with azuki bean paste. If you want a more traditional Obon experience, you can make dango yourself! I love Just One Cookbook–here is the dango recipe.
You might need–
Some examples of the delicious dango toppings are:
Mitarashi – sweet and savory soy sauce glaze (mitarashi recipe)
Anko – sweet red bean paste
Kinako –soybean powder mixed with sugar and drizzled with brown sugar syrup
Matcha-an – sweet green tea powder flavor (matcha-an recipe)
Next time your family or friends visit, how about treating them to homemade dango when they arrive, during their stay, and before they leave?
Somen is eaten during Obon because the long, thin noodles represent the strings used to tie up luggage, but dipped in salty “mentsuyu” (麺つゆ), it’s a rejuvenating food to eat anytime during the summer. It’s quick and easy to make, perfect to serve guests who are visiting!
Shoujinryouri (精進料理): Buddhist Cuisine
Since Obon is a Buddhist event, traditional families eat shoujinryouri, or Buddhist cuisine. If you have tried shoujinryouri before, you probably already know that it is vegetarian, but did you know why? One of the five Buddhist principles prohibits the taking of life, so all the dishes are made without meat or fish. You might also have noticed there is nothing too spicy or pungent in odor, for example, chili pepper, onions, garlic, or “rakkyo” pickles (らっきょう). These foods are thought stimulate “worldly desires,” and are thus meant to be avoided.
Instead, shoujinryouri focuses on four good “fives.”
Five flavors: sweet, spicy (but not too spicy!), sour, bitter, and salty
Five cooking methods: raw, simmered, grilled, deep-fried, and steamed
Five colors: white, red, green, yellow, and black
One-soup-five-dishes: a balanced menu that consists of soup and five dishes (not counting rice and pickles, which are a given)
This summer, why not take a new challenge and try cooking a dinner according to these strict guidelines? Here are some ideas for recipes:
Kimpira Gobo (leave off the chili pepper)
Cold Somen (make without scallions)
Obon Festival 2020
Few Japanese these days are religious, but Obon continues to be a big holiday. More than anything, it seems to be a season when people take a little time out of their ordinary, busy lives to appreciate their relatives who have passed away, and to spend more time with their living family members. Why not use Obon Midsummer Festival 2020 as a chance to spend quality time with your family around a good meal, looking back on the good memories you’ve had together?
Have you ever celebrated Obon? What is your favorite summer food? Favorite dango topping? Let us know in the comments below.
Helpful items for your Obon cooking–
(Aburaage, used in one of the linked recipes, is hard to find online, but it might be available at your local Asian supermarket. If you find”Asian bean curd puff” or “atsu-age” these work as well.)