The Obon Festival in Japan is what Halloween would look like if it still had its soul. It’s a festival to welcome departed loved ones into your home and then send them back to where they came from after you’ve spent precious days with them. The main group event is “Bon Odori”, which is a dance that takes place after nightfall, lit by lanterns.
There are two fixed times to celebrate in Japan, plus another date that moves around based on the lunar calendar. The first is in late July, which is observed by those in Tokyo and a few other places. The second is approaching in August. This is when people from more rural areas celebrate, along with those who still have their hearts there. Around this time, you can see shouryou uma (“soul horse”) made of vegetables and chopsticks by the roadside and outside houses. This is a cucumber or carrot horse with chopsticks for legs and is a prayer at the start of Obon that the departed’s soul will arrive just a little bit quicker. Both horses and cucumbers have a reputation for being pretty fast. At the end of Obon, a cow made of aubergine/eggplant asks for souls to be sent home at their leisure.
I asked my Japanese teacher if these were kindred spirits to teruterubouzu, which are made by children hoping for sunny days during the rainy season, and she gave me a resounding ‘no’. Teruterubouzu are for children, whereas a shouryou uma is a sincere prayer. She also told me about a private moment of the festival, when families take lanterns to and from the temple. The light guides the spirits to their home. In times past, this light was kept on throughout Obon, but this practice has since stopped.
I can’t take part in that, but Bon Odori holds a special place in my heart. People from the local community dance around a yagura, which is part watchtower, part stage, and usually has a taiko drummer at the top. Pre-recorded folk songs play and people use simple, repetitive movements to move around the tower. As long as you’re respectful, you can usually join in too. The secret is to copy the oldest person in the circle.