Obon, the Japanese Day of the Dead | lifestyle


Well, another obon is on the books. What were your ancestors like?

Obon, of course, is the Japanese holiday to show respect to the deceased. However, it’s not as bleak as it might sound. Believe it or not, Obon is a top three vacation in Japan regardless of the cemetery backdrop.

I think what makes a holiday commemorating the dead so popular is that it still has all of the elements of an otherwise festive time: days off, travel, family reunions, large meals, etc. All of which keep the mood even though the purpose is heavy sounds.

Before we get into the celebration, let’s deal with the question of the date. In the area of ​​Japan where I live, Obon falls on August 15, but that is by no means universal.

The holiday precedes Japan’s introduction of the Gregorian calendar, and when that calendar transition finally happened in the 1870s, some holiday dates were interpreted differently in different areas.

Today you can find areas in Japan where Obon is celebrated on July 15th, August 15th, or on a floating date between August and September. And you thought Thanksgiving was hard to pin down. Obon is like Thanksgiving and Election Day having a baby in a leap year.

We live in an area on August 15th, so we come to the main festival of Obon – something my wife and I call grave hopping.

We wake up early in the morning from Obon and drive to meet the extended family at the cemetery where my wife’s grandmother is buried. (I use “buried” instead of “buried” because the Japanese generally cremate the deceased and place their ashes in an above-ground memorial. These memorials are generally slightly larger and more box-shaped than the headstones you see in the United States, and they have hidden doors that lead to small voids inside. Over time, the ashes of several people can be added to a single family monument.)

Some things happen in the cemetery. First there is the cleaning of the grave, which is really only about pouring water over it. That year I realized that cleaning is mostly ceremonial as it rained constantly but water was still poured over the tombstone.

Next, the family places some of the deceased’s favorite foods on the grave. In my obon grave hopping years, I’ve seen grapes, pears, apples, and all kinds of snacks piled on tombstones.

These don’t have to be top notch foods, mind you. If your late grandpa liked Flamin ‘Hot Cheetos then by all means throw a bag on his grave.

Now that the memorial is washed and the food is in place, some prayers will be said. I’m sure prayers are different from all of the people who say them, so however I put them here, they’ll be pathetically close to the bigger picture.

Obon was traditionally considered a day when the spirits of the deceased returned from the afterlife and gathered around their graves. This idea is still mentioned today, and while it may not be taken literally, it is certainly still part of the Obon lore.

The prayers, I have been told, are an opportunity to speak directly to your deceased loved ones while they are back in town.

And that’s it. The whole process takes about 15 minutes, and then everyone packs up. I know a lot of you are worried about the food, thinking that some perfectly good Flamin ‘Hot Cheetos would spoil. (Do Cheetos spoil?) Rest assured, the food is shared among the living and everyone takes what they like.

Sounds short and sweet, doesn’t it? Well it is – for this cemetery. If everyone packs up and leaves, they won’t go home. They form a family caravan that then goes to the nearest cemetery.

And then the next and the next, repeating the process each time. My wife’s family goes everywhere and visits cemeteries for almost two days.

But grave hopping is probably exactly what makes Obon a top three vacation in Japan. For example, my wife’s family plans to have a big gathering at a restaurant every year as a kind of pit stop in the middle of the drive to every cemetery on this side of the country.

Even the most distant grave we visit is a couple of hours away and takes us through the towns of relatives we don’t see often. We spend the night with such a relative and stop by a few others on the way home.

Obon, a festival of the dead, actually has a lot in common with major US holidays like Christmas or Independence Day. Spent time with the extended family?

Check. Travel a lot? Check. To eat a lot? Check. Just like Christmas and Independence Day.

Just replace the gifts and fireworks with the ghosts of your ancestors.

Justin Whittinghill is from Owensboro and is an Assistant Professor of English at the Kanazawa Institute of Technology in Kanazawa, Ishikawa, Japan. His column runs on the last Sunday of the month in Lifestyle. He can be reached at [email protected].

Justin Whittinghill is from Owensboro and is an Assistant Professor of English at the Kanazawa Institute of Technology in Kanazawa, Ishikawa, Japan. His column runs on the last Sunday of the month in Lifestyle. He can be reached at [email protected].