Friday, September 6, 2013

Carpe Diem #291, O-Bon Festival (Bon Festival)

Dear Haijin, visitors and travelers,

Today another nice prompt in our classical Japnese kigo for autumn month. As you may know Japan is a country in which celebrating is one of the most important things to do. There are thousands of festivals in Japan and in every region of Japan they have festivals which are specific for that region. Today our prompt is such a festival and maybe you have heard from it or have seen it in the movie Karate Kid 2. Our prompt for today is Bon- or Obon Festival (Bon Festival). It's a festival somewhat like Halloween, because during Obon the Japanese celebrate their deads and bring them offerings. For example paper lanterns which are placed in the water.

Toro Nagashi, or the floating of lanterns

I am offering
moonlight on the river
for my ancestors

Let me tell you all a bit more about this Obon Festival.
Obon or just Bon is a Japanese Buddhist custom to honor the spirits of one's ancestors. This Buddhist-Confucian custom has evolved into a family reunion holiday during which people return to ancestral family places and visit and clean their ancestors' graves, and when the spirits of ancestors are supposed to revisit the household altars. It has been celebrated in Japan for more than 500 years and traditionally includes a dance, known as Bon-Odori.

at the graveyard
after so much time I shed my tears
for my brother

I sense his spirit
cleaning his grave under the willow -
skylark's song

(*) My older brother died in 1995 of Lungcancer

The festival of Obon lasts for three days; however it’s starting date varies within different regions of Japan. When the lunar calendar was changed to the Gregorian calendar at the beginning of the Meiji era, the localities in Japan reacted differently and this resulted in three different times of Obon. "Shichigatsu Bon" (Bon in July) is based on the solar calendar and is celebrated around 15 July in eastern Japan (Kantō region such as Tokyo, Yokohama and the Tohoku region), coinciding with Chūgen. "Hachigatsu Bon" (Bon in August) is based on the lunar calendar, is celebrated around the 15th of August and is the most commonly celebrated time. "Kyu Bon" (Old Bon) is celebrated on the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, and so differs each year. "Kyu Bon" is celebrated in areas like the northern part of the Kantō region, Chūgoku region, Shikoku, and the Okinawa Prefecture. These three days are not listed as public holidays but it is customary that people are given leave.

Credits: Maha Maudgalyayana (the roots of Obon)

Obon is a shortened form of Ullambana (Japanese: urabon'e). It is Sanskrit for "hanging upside down" and implies great suffering. The Japanese believe they should ameliorate the suffering of the "Urabanna".
Bon Odori originates from the story of Maha Maudgalyayana (Mokuren), a disciple of the Buddha, who used his supernatural powers to look upon his deceased mother. He discovered she had fallen into the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and was suffering. Greatly disturbed, he went to the Buddha and asked how he could release his mother from this realm. Buddha instructed him to make offerings to the many Buddhist monks who had just completed their summer retreat, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month. The disciple did this and, thus, saw his mother's release. He also began to see the true nature of her past unselfishness and the many sacrifices that she had made for him. The disciple, happy because of his mother's release and grateful for his mother's kindness, danced with joy. From this dance of joy comes Bon Odori or "Bon Dance", a time in which ancestors and their sacrifices are remembered and appreciated.

Credits: Yukata, light cotton kimono

As Obon occurs in the heat of the summer, participants traditionally wear yukata, or light cotton kimonos. Many Obon celebrations include a huge carnival with rides, games, and summer festival food like watermelon.

"Look granddad!"
she dances through the garden
in her yukata

in her yukata
she looks like a fairy
lightfooted she dances

after her dance
she smiles and takes a bow -
eating watermelon

The festival ends with Toro Nagashi, or the floating of lanterns. Paper lanterns are illuminated and then floated down rivers symbolically signaling the ancestral spirits' return to the world of the dead. This ceremony usually culminates in a fireworks display.

Toro Nagashi, or the floating of lanterns

Bon Odori meaning simply Bon dance is a style of dancing performed during Obon. Originally a Nenbutsu folk dance to welcome the spirits of the dead, the style of celebration varies in many aspects from region to region. Each region has a local dance, as well as different music. The music can be songs specifically pertinent to the spiritual message of Obon, or local min'yo folk songs. Consequently, the Bon dance will look and sound different from region to region. Hokkaidō is known for a folk-song known as "Soran Bushi." The song "Tokyo Ondo" takes its namesake from the capital of Japan. "Gujo Odori" in Gujō, Gifu prefecture is famous for all night dancing. "Gōshū Ondo" is a folk song from Shiga prefecture. Residents of the Kansai area will recognize the famous "Kawachi ondo." Tokushima in Shikoku is very famous for its "Awa Odori," or "fool's dance," and in the far south, one can hear the "Ohara Bushi" of Kagoshima.

Obon Dance

The way in which the dance is performed is also different in each region, though the typical Bon dance involves people lining up in a circle around a high wooden scaffold made especially for the festival called a yagura. The yagura is usually also the bandstand for the musicians and singers of the Obon music. Some dances proceed clockwise, and some dances proceed counter-clockwise around the yagura. Some dances reverse during the dance, though most do not. At times, people face the yagura and move towards and away from it. Still some dances, such as the Kagoshima Ohara dance, and the Tokushima Awa Odori, simply proceed in a straight line through the streets of the town.

welcoming the spirits
with a Bon Odori dance -
happy Buddhist monk

happy Buddhist monks
celebrating their ancestors
chanting their mantras

The Bon dance tradition is said to have started in the later years of the Muromachi period as a public entertainment. In the course of time, the original religious meaning has faded, and the dance has become associated with summer. As we could have read above Obon can also be in August (the first month of autumn in classical Japan) and therefore is Obon a early-autumn kigo.

Obon Festival Dancers

What a joy to prepare this Obon Festival episode of Carpe Diem's classical Japanese kigo for autumn month and what a joy to learn something about ancient culture of the country where our beloved haiku once saw the light of life. (Source: wikipedia)

I hope that this episode inspires you and that you all will share haiku with Obon as theme. I am looking forward to all your attempts to catch Obon in a few words and lines ... Have fun!
This prompt will stay on 'till September 8th 11.59 AM (CET) and I will post our new episode, Momomoni (Peach), later on today around 7.00 PM (CET). !! Obon Festival is open for your submissions at 7.00 PM (CET) !!


  1. Kristjaan, thank you so much for that post. I didn't know anything about this festival, and this was so interesting. And the information about the changing calendar and the tradition relating to the ancestral homeland helps me understand a bit better why the number and variety of Japanese festivals seems so confusing from the perspective of this American gal.

  2. I also really appreciate all the time and information you put into these posts. This was cool to learn about.

  3. This is so beautiful! Had to write. Thanks for this prompt. I fell in love with the pictures.

  4. Amazing, really amazing haiku Kristjaan......very, very powerful. And what a great post.

  5. Love this post... and that little fairy dancing in her yukata is so sweet...

  6. Once again a most beautiful and informative post and lovely haiku ~ carol, xo

    ps. maybe just maybe I caught up with your list of prompts?