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Obon brings ancestors back to Okinawa homes

By: Bill Charles

Date Posted: 2004-08-27

streets of Okinawa will be filled during the coming five days, but the stores will be closed.

It is Obon, one of the three primary holidays on the Okinawa calendar.

Obon is a time for celebrating life, and welcoming ancestor spirits home for a family reunion. It’s a Buddhist event,where ancestor spirits are believed to return to the human world in order to visit relatives. It is also called the Urabon, the Feast of Lanterns.

Traditions are everywhere, and you will see them at every turn during these next days.

It is said that on this single day of the year, the iron pot of hell is opened, and the deceased are allowed to leave. Buddhist services are held at temples and in private homes for ancestors, friends and relatives who’ve died, with particular focus on those who’ve died within the past year.

There will be dancing in the streets, called bon odori, music, plenty of traditional lanterns hanging in front of houses to guide the spirits home, and intense family bonding. Bon Odori is a religious folk dance originally conceived to comfort the spirits of the dead during their ritual visit to the earthly world. It is a dance shared and participated in by Okinawans of all ages, including small children.

The Bon Odori varies from region to region in Japan, with different songs and dance styles, including some adaptations from other parts of the world where Okinawans have settled. The Bon dance is held in the streets, as well as in temples across the island.

During the Obon holiday period, which officially ends next Tuesday, Okinawans will visit their family tombs, offer food and prayers, and communicate with the spirits. They will also offer up food at their home altars.

Obon is an important event socially, as well as from a religious perspective. It is a time when it is nearly mandatory that family return home to be together. Years ago, it was required that all family gathered for Obon, and for events on January 15.

As Obon ends, traditionally the lanterns are lit and set onto the waters to guide the spirits back to their world. Obon is celebrated at several times during the month, with Okinawa holding its celebrations two weeks behind mainland Japan.

Obon is celebrated from the 13th -15th day of the seventh month of the year, which is July on the lunar calendar. It is commemorated this way on the mainland.

Obon, as noted, is a key holiday. Most stores and entertainment activities will be closed during some or all of the days during the holiday festival period. Sunday through Tuesday will be the primary celebration days.

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