Obon is an annual Japanese festival to honour ancestors. In the belief that the spirits of the dead return every year to visit their relatives, people tidy up family graves, clean house, hang up lanterns and set out food offerings to welcome their ancestors. A traditional folk dance – the ‘Bon Odori’ or Bon Dance – is performed in welcome, but this is a joyful rather than solemn occasion.

Of Buddhist origins, Obon has been celebrated in Japan for over 500 years. The festival takes place from the 13th to the 15th day of either July or August, depending on the region. Although the three days are not official public holidays, it is customary for workers to be given time off.

Like Thanksgiving in North America, Obon is also a time when many Japanese travel home to be reunited with their family, and so the festival is as much a celebration of the living as of the dead.

For the Bon Dance, people gather at a local park or shrine wearing traditional yukatas (light summer kimonos), and in order to invoke the souls of the dead they perform a kind of Japanese line dance around a wooden platform lit by brightly coloured lanterns. A typical night-time Bon Dance event can be seen in this charming video, where locals dressed in kimonos dance back and forth to a very catchy folk tune:


The festival ends on the third day when people light paper lanterns and float them down rivers as a symbol of their ancestors’ spirits returning to the world of the dead. A fireworks display normally follows.

Photo credit: jongela19