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Obon holiday to honor Okinawans’ ancestor spirits

Date Posted: 2004-08-20

One of Okinawa’s most important holiday periods, Obon, is only days away.

Obon is the time when Okinawans invite their ancestors’ spirits to return from the sky and share time with them. This year Obon runs August 28-30.

The traditional ritual is both serious and festive, as the ancestors are asked to show up, enjoy food, drink and dancing, and then return to the other world. Ceremonies take place many places, from homes to the graveyards.

The annual Obon events begin with the oldest person in the family, the God-lady, calling the spirits home.

On one small island, Aguni Island, Obon is held earlier, calling their festive time “Yagan-uyumi.” There, the God-ladies are the oldest ones in the village, charged with calling spirits from Yagan Place. Yagan, in local language, refers to shrines located in the northern part of the village.

The eight God-ladies don their special white kimonos, light incense, make smoke with it, and begin four days of sitting on the hillsides communicating with the ancestors. Only the God-ladies are allowed in the ceremonies held in seclusion, and they pray for the spirits to come, then exchange words with them.

During the four days, the villagers stay off the street, keeping everything dark. Even cars are prohibited from driving at night, because the headlights could interfere with the God spirits as they come from shrines to talk to the God-ladies. Once in the village, the spirits go to their relatives’ homes.

An hour with families and spirits then leads to a hillside visit by all, where a special white sake and foods are exchanged. Tourists are welcome to observe.

The village, having explained their system, now is coming public with their dilemma. It seems they’re losing their God-ladies, as the older women die there are no young people who know how to invite the ancestors’ spirits.

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