As mentioned before, this week marked Obon, the Festival of the Dead in Japan. It is an ancient Buddhist ritual to worship the family ancestors who are said to return from the afterlife to visit their decendants. Traditionally, Obon was celebrated around the 15th day of the seventh month in the lunar calender (and is still in the southern parts of Japan like Okinawa for example) but with the switch from the lunar to the Gregorian calender, things became more complicated. Today, Obon is celebrated around 15th of August almost everywhere in Japan, but in the Kanto region around Tokyo and in Tohoku it happens one month before that. The three days of Obon are not national holidays, but many people are given leave anyway, especially small family run businesses are closed.

The rituals performed during Obon vary greatly depending on the local customs, but as I mentioned yesterday, many of them involve fire and light. I am sure there are special rituals performed at home as well, at each family’s ancestral shrine, but unfortunately I am not privy to any details here.

One thing that is done everywhere though are Bon Odori or Obon dance performances to entertain the dead – and the living as well. I went to the one at Enma-do temple in Kyoto last Wednesday night. There were about 20 performers, all dressed in same yukata and turquoise socks, and I was surprised to see both children and women among them (as women often have no place in religious ceremonies). In the beginning were musical pieces with flutes and small (taiko) drums.

Music performance with drums and flutesThen followed the dances, accompanied by music and sometimes a sung story. I am not entirely sure, but the two guys below dressed as women (do you notice their hair-ornaments?) performed a rather comical piece; and the two girls were meant to conjure images of the Maiko of Gion with their long sleeved kimono.

cross-dressed guys dancingwomen depicting maikoThe highlight however, was the lion’s dance: It told (all without words) the story of a lion, living peacefully in the forest – performing acrobatic feats so as to not get bored – until a “great” warrior came along and killed the poor beast. As you can see, I was rooting for the lion all the way! acrobatic lion on a small pedestalwarrior ensaring the lion in a net