What is Obon in Japan?

What is Obon?

Generally speaking, Obon is held from the 13th to the 16th of August. Some areas hold it in July and September. Most companies are closed, and in addition to Obon holidays, people tend to take paid leave, so they have long holidays. Next to New Year’s holiday and Golden Week, Obon has become one of the longest holidays for Japanese people. Obon is an event during which people visit their hometowns and the graves of their ancestors. What does Obon mean? According to Wikipedia, Obon(お盆) means a plate upon which people are supposed to carry food. In ancient times, the plate was considered sacred because people used to dedicate food to God using it. After that it became a sacred thing itself. People considered the plate to be as sacred as the holy spirit. To express their gratitude and awe, people began to add  ”O”(お) to the beginning of the word. This is a small tip about the Japanese language, when people add “O,” it means that people want to express respect to the word that they are going to use. 

Mukaebi and Okuribi 

Mukaebi(迎え火) and Okuribi(送り火). Mukae means “welcoming”, and Okuri means “saying goodbye”. Bi or hi (火)means “a light”. On the evening of August 13th, people light a bundle of straw by their house to allow their ancestors to find their house easily and go back to their homes. In this day and age, it might be prohibited to burn something due to fire accidents, so you might see a candle or a lantern instead. In my hometown, my grandmother used to burn a bundle of straw by the small river close to my house. I loved to see it and I felt the holiday spirit like Obon was coming. On the flip side, on the evening of the 16th, we light the stuff to say goodbye to our ancestors. Don’t forget to put out the light, because it is said your ancestors won’t want to go back to the afterlife.

An Eggplant Horse

*Nowadays it is sold as a vegetable set for Obon.

This is not a toy or recreational thing for kids, this Sholyo-Uma(精霊馬), which means a horse who is a sacred emissary from God made out of eggplant and disposable chopsticks. Some people make it with cucumber. You might not think it looks like a horse but ancient people believed it was a sacred horse. 

Sugar Cookies 

These are called Rakugan(落雁) and are made out of sugar, starch and starch syrup. The dough is shaped into petals and flowers using a wooden mold. It’s been known for its subtle taste and elaborate shapes. It is used as an offering during Obon. To be honest, I remembered it doesn’t taste great. Why people used it as an offering is because sugar was luxury food at that time. Before that, real fruit was used. When it comes to the shape of a lotus flower, it is considered a symbol of Buddhist paradise so it is used during Obon. 


Onsen (温泉) is a hot spring. Japan is home to many good quality onsen and people love to go. If you’re in a place that has an onsen, you might want to go there. You would think the best season is winter for going to an onsen, but going during Obon at the end of summer is great as well. It’s really awesome to take an outdoor bath in the evening while listening to the voices of cicadas. 

Clean Up The Grave of Your Ancestors 

When I was a kid, I was really bored cleaning my family’s grave. However, as I get older, I’ve come to think of it as a profound activity. It’s not only cleaning it physically but it is also a good time of reflection for me. Focusing on cleaning helps me calm down and allows me to be reminiscent of my ancestors. 


As most people visit their hometowns, there are crowds in restaurants, especially in local areas. They want to eat local specialties so they are likely to be more crowded than big chain restaurants.


While rural areas are crowded, big cities are relatively vacant. From the 14th to the 15th there are fewer people than the 13th and 16th. Typhoons come very often during this season, so please check the weather forecasts. 

Bonodori( 盆踊り)

During Obon, young males and females used to stay up all night and dance together once a year. That was the origin of bonodori. Nowadays, it has become an event where people enjoy mingling with local people. Also, local people are pleased to have strangers join the event. They take place in public halls. You might want to join such an event.

How was it? Obon is one of the big holidays for Japanese people to spend with their families and go somewhere. If you’re in Japan during the Obon holidays, you might see a candle or a lantern. It’s worth seeing them. It is a good opportunity to know how traditional Japanese events vary from place to place. If you get a chance, you might want to join bonodori. Thank you for reading my article to the end. See you soon in my next article.

One Comment on “What is Obon in Japan?”

  1. Hi, Kazu san!
    I enjoyed your article as always.
    I had never thought that “Obon” in summer has the same name as “Obon” for a tray. Thank you for sharing the origin of the name.
    My English teachers often ask me what Obon holidays are. Your explanation is easy to understand. I will definitely share this article next time someone asks me!

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