Every year for Obon, I head up to a coastal town in Ibaraki to visit my in-laws. Today, I’ll be sharing a few snippets of life in Japan – the dos and don’ts of Obon.
Obon (お盆), a week-long period in the middle of August, is a time for Japanese people to return to their hometowns and pay respects to relatives and ancestors.
However, there’s been an alarming number of COVID-19 infections rising in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, and Okinawa this week. And, it’s very likely that many will forgo their annual summer visits to see parents and grandparents and visit the family grave.
If this is your first Obon or you just need s refresher, read on. Keep in mind that beliefs can vary throughout Japan and families may have their own traditions to uphold.
With all of that said, let’s begin!
Do: Bring Gifts
Obon coincides with ochugen (お中元), the midsummer gift giving period. You don’t need to prepare anything extravagant or expensive when visiting Japanese friends or relatives during this time of year.
In fact, just head to a department store like Isetan or Keio, and you’ll find ochugen gift sets featuring sweets, coffee, kitchen goods, soy sauce, etc. As a bonus, the gifts are already wrapped!
When visiting relatives’ homes you many also want to bring osonae mono (お供え物), offerings for the Buddhist altar. Osonae mono sets typically consist of a fresh fruit platter, but you can also find wrapped gifts marked as お供え物 at supermarkets around this time of year.
Do: Ohaka Mairi
Ohaka mairi (お墓参り) is the term for visiting the family grave. Ohaka mairi is typically done during Obon, as well as on the anniversary of a loved one’s death. The essential part of Obon is preparing the grave for the spirits’ return to the human world and giving them updates on life and giving them thanks for watching over you.
Here’s what you should bring:
Spray mosquito repellent
Osonae mono (see above)
Trash bags and gloves for cleaning dead leaves etc off the graves (There are water spouts and buckets at the cemetery)
What to wear:
Sun hat or visor
Don’t: Fall In The Graveyard
I still haven’t gotten a concrete answer on this one, as I dare not ask “why” when it comes to the spirits. Just know that if you fall, you should leave behind an article of clothing or tear off a piece.
Don’t: Give Fancy Flowers
After cleaning the family grave, Japanese people will put flowers in the mini vases. These flowers should be understated.
Avoid flowers with thorns, or anything with a strong scent (it is, however, acceptable to bring the relatives’ favorite flowers).
Throughout the year, florists will have bukka (仏花, literally “Buddha’s flowers”), flowers just for visiting a grave or placing on the family altar. If in doubt, just tell a florist that you need a bouquet for ohaka mairi: (これからお墓参りに行くんですけど。Kore kara ohaka mairi ni ikun desukedo.)
Do: Have Salt On Hand
Purity and cleanliness are a big part of Japanese culture. It’s the reason why you wash your hands before entering a Japanese shrine or temple. It’s also why you take your shoes off before entering a Japanese home.
After visiting a grave or going to a funeral, Japanese people always sprinkle salt over themselves before entering a house. Another time you’ll see salt in Japan is when sumo wrestlers purify the ring or you might see a platter of salt near the entrance of a business or restaurant.
Don’t: Have Fun With Your Friends Or Get Married
If you told me this a few years ago, this is what I’d say: if Obon is a time for spirits to return from the other world, shouldn’t it be the perfect time to have a wedding? Then, all family members can attend, right?
True, Obon is technically a summer holiday, the one summer holiday that nearly every Japanese student or worker gets. (Which is the cause of sky-high ticket prices and traffic jams.)
However, it is an understated event that is to be spent with one’s family. Hang out with your friends before or after Obon, not during. Likewise, weddings, and other joyous occasions should be avoided.
One year my husband had to return to Tokyo early to attend a wedding, and my MIL and I just side-eyed each other across the table and whispered, “They have no sense.” (非常識だね、Hijoushiki da ne) That’s when I knew I was destined for life in Japan.
Don’t: Swim In The Ocean
Summer means beach fun, right? Nope, unless you just plan on sticking to the sands. Step in the water, and you’re walking into an early grave.
My MIL insists that the reason for water-related injuries and deaths during the summer season is all due to people’s disrespect for the spirits.
This is how it works — the spirits return to the land of the living via the ocean.
That’s why Japanese people light mukaebi/okurubi (迎え火/送り火), a large fire guiding the spirits to/from the water and onto shore. Once onshore, the spirits follow lanterns to their family home. You’ll also see tourou nagashi (灯篭流し), paper lanterns floating on the water.
Now, the spirits that had no one to welcome them are stuck in the ocean, no doubt with a grudge for the living. It’s those spirits in limbo that are responsible for all the water-related deaths and injures. What’s more — All those jellyfish in the summer ocean? Those are the spirits!
“Modern science” (link in Japanese) will tell you that jellyfish polyps are born in June and reach adult size by September, making it look as if jellyfish suddenly appear around Obon. But, don’t be fooled — BEWARE!