Summer is the scariest time in Japan, because that is when the ghosts come out. Lafcadio Hearn bacame famous with his retellings of classical ghost stories. Because ghosts in Japan are not comical, they can hurt you. Badly. Ripping off your ears, or your face, or some other body part.
The reason ghosts come out in summer is not just that it is warmer (so warm the living can have a heatstroke). It is also the traditional Buddhist holiday for cleaning the graves of your relatives. It is when the dead come home for a few days. That is the foundation for the Obon festival (or just bon).
Three different celebrations
The celebration of Obon is spread out over July and August, even though most people still take their holidays in August. Many shops and small businesses close for a few days, usually half a week, around the Obon holiday. The dates for the celebration are determined by the Buddhist calendar and the Obon testival is very much a Buddhist festival, using the temple grounds for the festival.
Welcoming chocolate bananas
The Obon celebration is not just a celebration for the dead, it is also a celebration by the living. The people of the village dance to welcome the spirits of the dead back to their old homes.
And have a party around the dance platform. There are stands selling standards like octupus balls, pound cake, fried noodles, and shaved ice. And candied fruts, chocolate-covered bananas, and steamed Hokkaido potatoes.
This is not too different from the local festivals, except that it takes place in the temples and not the shrines. And there is no omikoshi, or portable altar.
Dancing for everyone
Your children will love it, not just because they love shaved ice and chocolate bananas, but also because of the dancing. This is more like a procession than a pair dance, with moves representing the dance. And everyone is welcome, including your children. And you, since as long as your kids are small they will appreciate your being there.
No website advertising
Since the Obon celebrations are local, there is no special advertising in newspapers or on TV, and no mention of the very local festivals on the tourism websites. You have to go look around the city streets until you find advertising for it, note down the times and dates, and figure out in which of the neighboring temples the dance will take place. There is a huge Bon-Odori in Hibya Park every yesr in August, but that is more of a media event than a religious festival (which takes place in July in Tokyo). If you can not find a local bon-odori, go there, but since it happens after dark it may be late for your kids.
Scary without ghosts
So if you are in Tokyo in July, or most of the rest of Japan in August, should you go looking for an Obon dance? Yes, absolutely. Your kids will love it, especially if they are school age or over. For smaller children, even around five, it may be a bit scary to go dancing on your own. Even if they can not actually see any ghosts. But if they do not like the dancing, they are sure to appreciate the chocolate bananas.
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I am Wisterian Watertree, recently moved from Bangkok to Tokyo, with a brief visit to Honolulu on the way. I write about travel, especially with our three beautiful kids (two girls and one boy, soon turning four and a half - yes. they are triplets). Travel is education and fun rolled into one, and if you are like me, that is something you want to give to your kids. If you want more tips and want to find out when I will publish something, get it from my email list. If you want to be personal, drop me a note on firstname.lastname@example.org, or if you want general tips, follow me on Twitter @wisterianw.