Global Holidays at Home: Japan’s Obon Festival

When the summer sun is scorching and the kids are complaining, call your strict great-granddad to the rescue from beyond the grave. During Japan’s Obon festival (August 13–15, 2017), a three-day Buddhist celebration that honors long-dead ancestors, families do everything from cleaning graves to lighting bonfires and sending paper boats and lanterns into the sea, all in service of remembering the dead.

This year, introduce your kids to a new family relative – maybe one who has been long since gone – and you’ll see just what the past has to teach the next generation.

Ancient Ancestor Love

The festival of Obon has been around in Japan for more than five-hundred years. Legend has it that a young disciple of the Buddha saw a ghost of his dead mother suffering in a realm of afterlife, and asked Buddha what he could do to end her pain. Buddha instructed him to make a donation to some traveling monks, and when he did, he saw his mother’s spirit pass out of the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and into happiness. Not only that, but he saw her history of suffering and sacrifices, all in service of her son.

Obon commemorates the suffering of one’s ancestors, celebrates an annual reunification with them, and facilitates their safe and peaceful return to the realm of the dead.

The dates of the three-day festival are a subject of debate within Japan’s various regions, because Japan has switched from the lunar calendar to the Gregorian calendar since the festival’s inception. That means celebrations of Obon are spread between July 15, August 15, and a revolving date that still follows the lunar cycle. However, it’s most commonly celebrated in August.

Preparation is Key

If you want to take your kids through the full festival of Obon, you’ll need to prepare. Cleaning the house is the first step. This might be a great excuse to give the kids more chores than usual, with the excuse that “Grandpa always liked it that way…”

Tell your kids about a specific relative that you’re celebrating. It’s a good way to instill your family story into the minds of your children. Grandparents, great-grandparents, and other deceased family members always have wisdom to share with those who are still living. If your relatives are buried in your town, make a trip to the cemetery to do some more cleaning at the gravesite.

In Japan, the festival is also a great excuse for a family reunion, so invite family members living nearby for a meal and to share stories together.

Light the Way Home

In Japan, families show their dead relatives the way home by lighting bonfires and keeping lanterns outside their doors. Any way you slice it, the Japanese really light up the night.

Make a paper lantern craft with your kids using simple origami techniques. First, build a boat-shaped base for the lantern, big enough to hold a little tealight candle. Fold a piece of 8 ½ by 11 paper in half along the 11-inch side, crease the page, and unfold it. Then, fold both long edges of the paper in so they touch the center crease.

Now make each corner of the paper into a point, as if you were making a paper airplane: fold each of the four corners into the center once, and then a second time. Now, flip the entire shape inside out, without unfolding the ends. Your boat should have a flat bottom, thin sides, and strong edges.

For the top of the lantern, take another paper and fold it in half by the 11-inch side. Cut slits in the paper, all the way across the crease. Don’t cut off strips, just cut the paper partway. Now, unfold the paper: you should have slits down the center of it, but it should still be a whole piece of paper. Finally, tape the short side of the paper together so the long edges are now the open ends of a circle. Place that on top of the boat and light the candle in the middle. Alternately, you can turn a paper lunch sack into a lantern too by cutting off the bottom and cutting slits into each side of it.

You may want to tape the bottom and top of your lantern together before lighting the candle inside. Electric tea candles work just fine, too.

Place the lantern in a prominent position outside your house for the duration of the festival. When you’re finished with family food, fun and celebration, release the lantern into a river or lake, if you live nearby one, to send your ancestor’s spirit back to the afterlife.

If you don’t have any water to send your spirit off, make a bonfire for the same purpose – and maybe also for roasting some s’mores.

Food of our Fathers

Your family get-together for Obon wouldn’t be complete without two staples of Japanese cuisine that have been popular throughout the ages: rice and green tea. Incorporate rice into whatever dish you serve as the family meal. If your kids will eat fish or sushi, they’ll get an authentic taste of Obon food; if not, stick with a simple rice and chicken dish.

But what you must have, without a doubt, is green tea. Make a formal sitting out of tea time after dinner, with sweets and tea served together. Each time someone takes a sip or a bite, they must tell something they remember or something they’ve learned about an ancestor who your family has been celebrating.

Festive Films

Don’t just tell your kids about Japan: Show them by revisiting a popular family film from your own childhood.

Get out the old VCR and pop in Karate Kid 2, in which our favorite sensei Mr. Miyagi takes his favorite pupil, Daniel, back to Okinawa, Japan, with him to be with Miyagi’s dying father. Near the end of the film, Miyagi and Daniel oversee their own Obon celebration as they see Miyagi’s father off to the afterlife.

Will you be celebrating Obon this year? What part are you looking forward to the most? Share with us!

Tags : celebrations   holidays from around the world   obon   global citizen   japanese holidays   asian holidays   

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