The Japanese Buddhist celebration, Obon, is devoted to honoring the spirits of the dead. Obon usually takes place between July-August. It is a time that many Japanese return to their hometowns and visit their families and enjoy the local traditions and festivals. The dancing styles and music selections vary by region, and the various festivals often incorporate local traditions, so each one has something unique to offer. It wasn’t easy to decide, but after much debate here are five Obon festivals we deem ‘can’t miss’ events because of the unforgettable, ‘Only in Japan’ experiences they offer visitors.
1. Daimonji Gozan Okuribi Fire Festival in Kyoto
Taking place in Kyoto, Japan’s culture capital, the Daimonji Gozan Okuribi Fire Festival is arguably the most famous Obon festival in Japan. Several Chinese character shaped bonfires are set up on mountainsides visible throughout the city of Kyoto. Each of the nearly 200 meter long bonfires burn one at a time, for about 30 minutes, creating an amazing night time spectacle.
Date: August 16th, 2013
Location: Visible all across the city of Kyoto
2. Awa Odori Festival in Tokushima City, Shikoku Island
This is one for the history buffs! This dance was originally choreographed way back in 1578 and passed on to each successive generation. The Awa Odori Festival may be the most historically preserved Bon Odori dance in Japan. It is still extremely popular today, drawing over 1.3 million tourists annually to the four day event. Visitors can also try out their dance prowess with lessons available before the main event and “drop in teams” of dancers welcoming anyone with a little practice into their fold.
Date: August 12th to 15th
Location: Tokushima City on the island of Shikoku.
Access: About a ten minute walk from JR Tokushima Station.
3. Gujo Odori Festival in Gujo, Gifu
Held for thirty-two nights, Gujo Odori is a weeks-long dance party! Often considered the largest dance-centered Obon festival in Japan, Gujo Odori welcomes participants regardless of any age or ability level. During the day, local dance studios offer group dance lessons for anyone who wants to master the moves of the Gujo Odori dance. During the pinnacle of the festival, from August 13th to 16th, dancers perform all night long from 8pm to 5am.
Date: Mid-July to early September
Location: Gujo, Gifu
Access: Take the Nagaragawa railway from Nagoya to Gujo Hachiman Station. The main festival is a fifteen minute walk from the station.
4. Nagasaki Shoro Nagashi Festival in Nagasaki City
In the Nagasaki Shoro Nagashi Festival or ‘Spirit Boat Procession’, boats are lit by lanterns and are uniquely designed to reflect the deceased in some way. The boats are pulled by people through the streets in a parade, accompanied by fireworks, gongs and drums. In the past, the boats were released into the waters of Nagasaki Bay, but due to pollution concerns, this is no longer the case, and the boats are dissembled after the revelry subsides. Each boat has a different meaning; some are dressed as festival floats, while others are a private act of mourning for those who recently lost a family member or close friend.
Date: August 15th
Location: Nagasaki city, Nagasaki
Access: In Shianbashi, Kenchozaka, Ohato, and other locations in Nagasaki.
5. Hokkai Bon Odori in Mikasa, Hokkaido
Hokkai Bon Odori is a festival that preserves the local flair and intimacy of the past! The city of Mikasa is the birthplace of Hokkai bon-uta song, one of the most famous traditional songs in Japan. Compared to the other large more popular Obon festivals, the Hokkai Bon Odori in Mikasa city is tiny and intimate. It is run by the locals for the locals. Highlights of this festival include the interactive chanting of the Soran Bushi and a fireworks display.
Date: August 13th – 15th
Location: Mikasa Chuo Park, Hokkaido
Access: To get to Mikasa Chuo Park, take the Super Kamui train from Sapporo to Iwamizawa Station, switch to the Hakodate line and get off at Minenobu Station. The Mikasa Chuo Park is a 15 minute taxi ride away.