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Obon and Summer Festivals

Updated: Mar 10

Every year, just when the summer heat is reaching its peak, Japan celebrates the Obon Holiday with countless summer festivals, events, and other activities. Not everyone gets this time off, but one thing is for sure, there is plenty to do and experience if you are here during this time. Just be ready to be out and deal with the heat and humidity.


In August each year is the Obon Holiday where you will likely see the festivals, fireworks, and Bon dances. All of which are lots of fun and I highly encourage you to participate in them as much as you can, but that doesn't really give you the whole story behind the season. The Obon holiday is celebrated as a time to remember your ancestors and those who have passed away. When it was first explained to me, I thought it was kind of like a Japanese Halloween. Except that instead of dressing up as witches, ghosts or goblins and decorating with pumpkins, Japan's version had colorful and beautiful yukatas and other traditional clothing along with Shaved ice (kakigori) and handheld fans. However, the yukata and traditional attire are more of a fun attire when visiting festivals and don't really have anything to do with Obon itself.

In reality, it is a much more solemn time than most visitors will get to experience. The concept is that the spirits of your ancestors and loved ones whom we have lost will return to earth during this time to spend it with you. This is why you will see many Japanese families visiting the graves of family they lost, or going to a temple, or even visiting other family during this time, but also why there are so many festivals and dances. You celebrate the time with the spirits of your ancestors and then when its over, you see them off back to the other side. Some places will float lanterns down a river to guide their loved ones back. To me, it seems to be a time that helps us stay connected to those we lost. That idea really made this Obon a special one for me.

A Special Obon for Me

Last year, on July 8th, I experienced one of the most difficult losses in my life when my father unexpectedly and suddenly passed away. It was the only time in my life where I regretted being in Japan because I couldn't make it back to see him one more time before he died, and I found out he passed away soon after my first flight landed in Tokyo while I was rushing back to be with him and my family. It was a very difficult time for us and something we have been learning how to live with for the past year. One thing that helped for my sisters and I was to ensure that he continues to be a part of our lives and remember everything he gave us. So for me, the idea of Obon seems like a great concept because it keeps the ones we lost as part of our lives.

In July I got to visit a Buddhist temple in Tokyo with some friends for an Obon event. It was extremely interesting to see and experience how a world that seemed so foreign to me, was so similar to the one I come from, especially when remembering those we lost. Since Japan has become such an integral part of my life, it got me thinking about how I would have wanted to share that with my dad. So as a small part of my own personal experience with Obon, I decided to incorporate the Japanese culture into how I remembered my dad as a way to continue to share my life and passion with him. I may not have an altar or shrine in my home, but I do have a shelf with a few photos to help me remember him. So, just as many families in Japan would leave offerings of their loved ones favorite foods and things, I poured a small glass of whiskey and set it beside his photo.

Summer Festivals

Now, the other side of the Obon Holiday is that there is no shortage of summer festivals. This year alone I went to 4 different summer festivals, one in Tokyo and three right here in Nagoya. Normally I would visit one and say that is enough, especially since I am not usually the type of person who enjoys the summer heat and humidity. However this year I learned that experiencing these things with the right people can make all the difference. Every festival this year was so much fun and I found myself doing things I wouldn't normally try, like dancing. I am so grateful for the memories from this year and for having the chance to see things through a different perspective.

These festivals are often multi-day events with tons of foods, performances, and other activities. Sometimes, they even incorporate events that blend Japanese and foreign culture, like cosplay parades. There are sure to be more traditional events as well, such as Taiko Drumming and the Bon dance. Make sure you research before you go, so you know where the things you want to see will be and what day and time you need to be there. Popular events will be packed with people, so get there early and find a good spot for the event. Then again, if you are OK with a lot of walking, then sometimes having no plan can still be a good way to experience the festival. Everything then becomes a surprise, though there is a chance you miss a lot too.

The Bon Dance

One of the key events of every good summer festival happens right after the sun goes down, it is the Bon Odori, or Bon dance. The dance itself will vary for different parts of Japan and may consist of several different variations. While there is traditional folk music that accompanies these dances, in recent times some places have also incorporated more modern music to pair with the traditional dance as well.

Typically everyone will gather around a small wooden stage and the dances will keep everyone moving in a circle around it. On the stage you will often find someone with a drum to keep the rhythm as well as several dancers to show everyone how to do each dance. The best advise I received is to just go big and have fun with all the moves. No one will do it exactly right, and plenty of other people will make mistakes, but you don't have to be perfect, you just have to let loose and enjoy yourself. Do that and its a lot of fun. Participation is not required, but you are honestly missing out if you don't.

Final Thoughts

One of the best parts of living and working in Japan is the chance to really experience the life and culture here. Getting out there and experiencing these things can have a totally different impact from just reading about them or watching a video on it. If your dream is to live in Japan, then my best advise is to really live it. Put yourself out there, try something new, build memories that will last a lifetime. Memories where you can remember the smell of the incense from the Shrines and Temples, or know the taste of food from a festival food stall where the yakisoba is just a little too greasy, or even the one where you had to find a small bench in front of a shop to sit down and cool off with a frozen matcha green tea drink because the heat and exercise got your heart racing and legs hurting a little too much.

Whatever the reason, putting yourself out there really will let you see so much of what life has to offer. I think my dad was always afraid I would get stuck in the loop of just going to work and then back home and never really get out, never really live my life. I admit that I even have times when I want to make excuses for myself, but the regret of not going lasts a lifetime while the fear of going out or the feeling of being too tired only lasts until about 10 minutes after you step out the door. It is absolutely worth it to go when you have that chance.

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