August is one of the busiest seasons in Japan for domestic travel. People from all over the country try to return to their hometowns to visit their families during this month and that’s because August marks the holiday of Obon.
The tradition of Obon can be found in its Buddhist roots of honouring one’s ancestors but has since evolved into a family reunion holiday where people return to their ancestral family home and visit and clean the graves of their ancestors.
Obon lasts for three days but its starting dates vary across the different regions of Japan due to the changing of calendars from lunar to Gregorian during the Meiji era but typically the 15th-17th August are the usual dates.
There are many local festivals across the country during this holiday. During these Obon festivals the Bon Odori dance performance is always held. The meaning behind this special dance is to welcome the spirits of the dead on this day. The style of the dance and songs change depending on the region but the spectacle is definitely something to behold no matter where you are.
One of the most recognisable festivals of Obon is the ‘Gozan no Okuribi’ festival in Kyoto, where five giant bonfires are lit at night on the surrounding mountains of the city. The bonfires each have a distinctive shape and is a big tourists attraction for the city.
Bonfires are common during Obon as families traditionally send their ancestors spirits back under the fires guidance. These sending fires are known as ‘Okuribi’.
Obon is not a national holiday so services still run as normal across the country but it is standard for people to take time off work during this time to head home. Because of this public transport can be much more busy during this time so it is often recommend to reserve transport tickets when you can and leave plenty of time for your journeys.
As Obon occurs in the heat of the summer, visitors and participants in its festivals usually wear Yukata or light Kimonos which can the festival into a good chance to show off your latest fashion.
So if you are lucky enough to be in Japan over August keep a look out for any Obon festival near you.