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Obon - Okinawa

from OkinawaHDR

What is Obon? Obon is a 3 day holiday set aside during the summer to honor deceased ancestors. During this period, family members celebrate the return of ancestral spirits by gathering together, feasting and praying. Some label the events of obon as ancestor worship and think it in terms of Christian rites. This is something of a misnomer and a more appropriate term might be ancestor veneration. This practice of honoring the ancestors has been around for centuries. Many Okinawans believe that after people die, they continue to exist in the spiritual world where they sometime continue to exert powerful influences over the living.


Courtesy Eric Wada
Differences - Obon is celebrated throughout Japan but the holiday customs differ slightly in Okinawa. The most notable difference is the dates held. In Japan, Obon is usually celebrated from August 13th to 15th each year. However the Okinawa festival dates are set according to the lunar calendar and therefore changes year to year. (On the Lunar Calendar, Okinawan Obon is celebrated July 13-15)


Obon festivities in mainland Japan often ends with bon odori (bon dancing) and the floating of lanterns while in Okinawa, the festivities conclude with all night Eisa dancing.

3 Days of Obon (Okinawa)

1.Unke - also spelled Unkeh. Known as the welcoming day. On the evening of the first day of celebration, families hang glowing lanterns outside along exterior pathways to help guide the spirits back home. All doors are open to allow spirits to enter and bowls of water are placed at the entrance so the spirits can wash their feet after their long journey back. The family butsudan is adorned with candles, flowers and overflows with offerings for the spirits such as rice, fruit, sugarcane, tea, awamori and the favorite dishes of the deceased.

2.Nakanuhi - (middle day) finds many family members spending time praying to their ancestors at the family butsudan where as many as three meals may be served throughout the day. Family members may move about during the day travelling from one family to another to pay their respects.


Courtesy Takahiko Miyara

3. Ukui - (final day) serves to escort the spirits back to their world. Families throw lavish farewell dinners. They light incense and offer prayers to their ancestors, asking for protection and forgiveness for any perceived neglect. Another custom is the burning of paper spirit money or uchikabi so that the ancestors will not have any needs upon returning to their realm.



Courtesy Michael Lynch

As a final escort to the departing spirits, troupes of Eisa dancers move throughout the streets and alleys of each town. These dances have roots in traditional Buddhist prayers. They begin after the sun sets and continues into the early morning hours. Though the religious nature of the holiday may be distant to some, for most, the festival is an opportunity for the families to reunite.