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Obon - a spiritual homecoming for all the family

By: Kotoko Chinen

Date Posted: 1999-08-20

This time of the year, life on Okinawa undergoes many changes. If you live in any local housing area, you might already notice the changes.

After each sunset, the beat of drums and the peculiar rhythm of Okinawan music can be heard floating along humid mid-summer breezes. At evening time, the snap and pop of firecrackers and the laughter of children break the usual peaceful nighttime. It’s summer vacation time, and with it comes the festival season, and most significantly “Obon.”

Obon is for many Okinawans one of the biggest events of the year, where ancestors are welcomed back home and show their appreciation to the good fortunes their family enjoys. This religious holiday takes place on August 23-25 this year.

With our unique historical and cultural background, we Okinawans celebrate Obon very differently from those on mainland Japan. Obon is celebrated for three days with the first day called "Unke" (Welcoming Day), the second "Nakanuhi" (The Middle Day), and the penultimate day "Ukui" (Escorting Day).

During Unke, Okinawans clean up the house and set out fruits and sake on family altars to prepare for the return of the spirits of our ancestors. To help spirits find their way back home, lanterns are lit for three days and nights during Obon.

Nakanuhi is a day for the spirits of our ancestors to simply enjoy their stay at home. Food is set out in front of the family altars three times a day.

On Ukui or “Escorting Day,” a ceremony to send the spirits back to their resting place is held late at night. From the morning of this last day of Obon, women mobilize to prepare food such as tempura, kamaboko, pork, and konbu for the ceremony. During the ceremony, relatives gather in front of the family altar to give thanks and prayers for their blessings, and burn incense and "Uchikabi,” yellowish pieces of paper representing money for the dead, in a bowl with sake and rice. Some of the food is placed in a bowl so the spirits can take it back with them.

Later, everyone steps outside to escort the spirits. The grandfather of the family, or his oldest son in his place, stands in front of the family members and yells "UKUI!" as he walks and the whole family follows him yelling "UKUI!" When the whole process is completed, the solemn ceremony turns into a fun family gathering. Everyone goes back inside the house and sits down and drinks and eats and enjoys themselves.

For the three days of Obon, any house with a family altar can expect many visitors. Guests bring gifts called "Ochuugen" as an offering to the spirits during their visit. Once they are led into the room with the family altar, they set out their gift in front of the altar. They then light a stick of incense and place it in an incense holder and pray to the ancestors. After that, they join the circle of chatting relatives while enjoying the feast.

Since it is a time of “homecoming” for spirits and it is believed that a large number of them stroll around the island, Obon is also a season for spooky stories, similar I suppose to Halloween in the United States.

As children gather on the night of Obon, "Yuurei-banashi" or "Obake-banashi" ("Yuurei" meaning ghosts and "Obake" meaning monsters in Japanese) stories are often told.

A little before or after midnight, young people visit friends to perform the Eisa dance, which they probably spent the best part of the day practicing. After the Eisa-dance, Ukui comes to an end. Shortly after, people tend to make their way home.

Obon is an important event for Okinawans because it presents an opportunity to remember our blessings and show our appreciation not only to our ancestors but also to our immediate family.

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