Obon Festival Traditions
Different traditions are carried out over the course of Obon week, depending on each region’s traditions.
On the first day of the festival, families usually visit their relatives’ graves, bringing along chochin lanterns. Some people clean their ancestors’ gravestones and markers before presenting offerings—though leaving these kinds of gifts at altars and temples is more popular. Through a ritual called mukae-bon, families call out to their ancestors, welcoming them back home. Sometimes, communal fires or bonfires outside people’s homes (mukae-bi) are used.
On the second day, traditional Obon folk dances called bon odori are performed, though the exact style varies from region to region across Japan. The lyrics and messages of the songs also differ and are unique to an area’s culture and history.
Japanese taiko drums are almost always played while dancers perform on a yagura stage. Light, summer kimonos called yukata are typically worn. This step of the celebration is normally held at parks, temples, shrines, and other public areas, where bystanders can join in the dancing too.
Toward the end of the festival, some people use the chochin lanterns to bring their ancestors’ spirits back to the gravesite through a ritual called okuri-bon. More recently, floating lanterns called toro nagashi have also grown in popularity. These lanterns house a candle and float on water. The toro nagashi are released on lakes, ocean, and rivers to help the ancestral spirits return to their world. The event is equally beautiful and spiritual for participants and bystanders alike.