Bon Festival

What: Buddhist observance, where the spirits of the dead return to their families.

When: July 13-16 or August 13-16, depending on the area.

Bon Festival

The Bon Festival is when the spirits of the dead are said to return home to their families. During this time the Japanese people visit the family altars and graves, burning incense and preparing for the spirits’ visit. A welcoming fire, or mukaebi, is lit the first night of the Festival and on the last night the spirits are sent off with the ending fire, or okuribi. On the last night, people light lanterns and send them off on the river to help the spirits find their way back to the other world.

The Bon Dances, or bon-odori, are performed during the festival, to welcome and comfort the spirits. Bon-odori is a popular tradition that is observed even by those who don’t participate in the Bon Festival. Over the years it has turned from just a religious tradition to a favorite summer pastime, in which people will wear their yukata, or light cotton summer kimono, and join in the easy-to-learn dance.

At the end of the Bon season are the famous bonfires, and the most notable of these is the Daimonji bonfire in Kyoto near Kinkakuji Temple on August 16th. On this night, an immense fire is burned into the side of the mountain in the shape of the kanji, or Chinese character used in Japanese writing, that means “great.” There are four other bonfires, each with different kanji lit, signifying the end of the Bon season.

Daimonji Bonfire

History and Calendar

The reason for the dates of the Bon Festival is unclear. The origin of the festival is believed to be a story of an Indian Priest who could see into the land of the dead, and after seeing this held a large mass, which occurred on July 15th. However, depending on the location, the festival can be held in either July (Kwanto district) or August (Kwansai district). Though it is unclear whether this is continued today, when held in July the festival is called O-bon, while in August, it is called Urabone. These are not different festivals, just an easier way to distinguish between those held in July and those in August.