K-12 Outreach for Japanese Culture: 8月 / August

This guide is designed for K to 12 instructors who teach Japanese culture and traditions.

お盆 / Obon (Bon Festival)






"Obon" is an annual Buddhist festival held from August 13th to 16th. In some places in the east, Kantō area, people celebrate it in July, from the 13th to 16th, following the old lunar calendar. It is believed that the ancestor’s spirits will pay a visit to the family members during this time, and Obon is celebrated to honor the ancestor’s spirits. It is also a time for live families to reunite.

People celebrate Obon differently depending in the area. In general, people light a lantern called "mukaebi" or welcome fire and read the sutra with a Buddhist priest in their house to welcome the ancestors’ spirits to come back home. People clean their ancestor's altar and grave and offer foods and flowers for the ancestors to enjoy. People also celebrate Obon by dancing a Bon Odori or Bon dance while singing during a Bon Festival and is another way to welcome the deceased spirits. Different parts of the country have different rhythms and moves for the Bon dance, and probably the most famous are the Sōran Bushi from Hokkaido Prefecture, Awa Odori from Tokushima Prefecture and Tokyo Ondo from Tokyo. And on the final day, people will either do "tōrōnagashi" and/or "okuribi" depending in the area you live. Tōrōnagashi is when people light a departure lantern and float the lantern on a river and okuribi or farewell fire, which is a large word usually on a mountain created with lit lanterns.  The most famous okuribi is at Kyoto Prefecture called "Gozan no Okuribi" or "Daimoji (big letter)." 

There is also a custom to invite the spirits of the ancestors by poking a cucumber and an eggplant with some toothpicks or chopsticks to mimic a four-leg animal or "shōryō-uma." The cucumber is to mimic a horse, so the ancestors can come visit as fast as possible. The eggplant is to mimic a cow, so the ancestors can leave in a relaxed and leisurely fashion. 

灯篭流し / Tōrōnagashi

五山の送り火・大文字 /  Gozan no Okuribi or Daimoji 

キュウリとナスの精霊馬 / Cucumber and eggplan shōryō-uma

有名な盆踊り / Yumei na Bon Odori (Famous Bon Dances)

There are many different styles of dancing for Bon Odori, depending on the area.

The first video is the dance, Sōran Bushi, from the northern island of Hokkaidō. The moves mimics the fishermen, reflecting at the major industry of the area. In the Sōran Bushi song, "Dokkoi Sho" and "Sōran" are used a lot; these words were originally used to motivate the fishermen during their work. The dance involves a lot more physical movement compared the other Bon Odori. (The dance starts at 0:13)

The second video is the dance, Awa Odori or Awa Dance, from southeastern prefecture of Tokushima. Awa Odori is danced in the Awa Odori is one of the biggest dance festivals in Japan and is held from August 12 to 15. The festival includes the dancer and the musicians who play the shamisen, a Japanese three stringed instrument, and taiko drums. 

お盆帰省ラッシュ / Obon Kisei Rasshu (End of Obon Rush)

In recent years, the end of the Obon traffic rush has been a problem in Japan. If you are traveling during the Obon season, beware of the Obon rush. 

マウイ島のお盆 / Maui-to no Obon (Obon Festival in Maui)

Obon is celebrated by Japanese and Japanese-Americans all over the world, like Maui. The Bon Festival is slightly different in Maui where the festivals are celebrated every weekend during the summer in an assigned temple throughout the islands.

お盆と和菓子/ Obon to Wagashi (Bon Festival and Sweets)


Obon is a festival to celebrate the welcoming of the ancestor’s spirits, and the tradition is to give several offerings to the ancestor’s altar. On the 13th day of July or August, 13 round white sticky rice dumplings with a red bean paste or sweetened sauce which are called “welcoming dumplings” or “omukae dango” are offered. From the day of 14th to 15th, sweets such as ohagi, a sweetened red bean paste with sticky rice inside, are offered. These are called “offering confectioneries” or “osonae gash”i are offered. And on the final day, the 16th, 13 simple round sticky rice dumplings called “farewell dumplings” or “okuri dango” are offered. The reason for offering 13 pieces of welcoming and farewell dumplings comes offering to the “sanbutsu” or the “Thirteen Buddhas,” a group of Buddhist deities. In recent years, offering confectioneries that are molded to look like vegetables, fruits, chrysanthemum and lotus flowers are growing in popularity. These objects are what is usually given as an offering, but making it into a confectionery prolongs the shelf life. These confectioneries are made of hard jelly or rice flour.  

おはぎ / Ohagi (sweetened red bean paste with a mochi inside)

お供え菓子 / Osonae gashi (made from jellies covered in sugar)