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Three-day Obon begins Sunday

Date Posted: 2006-08-03

Obon, the honoring of ancestral spirits, is set to begin on Sunday.

The three-day holiday on Okinawa is a time for locals to pay homage to their ancestors with visits to the family’s Buddhist altars and tombs. While some companies close for the holiday, retail stores will be doing a bustling business.

The first day of Obon, Unkeh, is a time for families to gather at the primary family residence to purify the home and its altar. Family members will place fruit, water, sake, tea and a pair of sugar cane stalks on the altar in preparation for the visiting sprits. In the evening, the family lights candles both at the altar and the gateway to the house to invite the spirits inside.

Obon is a time of celebration, and Okinawa’s second unique custom, Eisa, is performed in streets everywhere. Eisa is a traditional dance to entertain the visiting spirits.

Obon is also a time of gift-giving, and a time for sharing. Children and grandchildren return from mainland Japan to Okinawa to pay homage to the ancestors, and traffic snarls getting around the island. It’s a time for Ochugen, the presenting of gifts to relatives and bosses in the workplace. Okinawa stores rack up tens of millions of yen in sales, with typical Ochugen gift sets running ¥2,000~¥5,000. Food seasonings, towels, beer and gift certificates are popular choices.

A sweet, fresh Obon treat was served up in Okinawa last week as a Philippine cargo ship docked in Naha Port, bringing tons of bananas, pineapples and other fruits to the islands. The refrigerated cargo holds allowed bananas to be brought in a little less than ripe, making it possible for Obon celebrants to have perfectly fresh fruits for the holiday.

Tuesday, the final day of Obon, is Uukui, a time when the family gathers and celebrates with a lavish dinner before preparing to send the ancestral spirits back to the other world. A variety of foods are offered and special paper money, Uchikabi, is burned as an offer to the spirits for use in the other world. Uchikabi is paper imprinted with a coin pattern.

About midnight, family members will remove the offerings from the altar and move them to the family gate in front of the home. Incense will be lit, the uchikabi burned, and the families say goodbye to the ancestral spirits for another year. Okinawa tradition is that spirits will carry the uchikabi money with them, and use the sugar cane stalks as walking sticks.

Obon in Okinawa is celebrated differently than mainland Japan, where the family traditions were held July 13~15.

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