which falls on around July 15th is the climax of Obon.
The spirits come back to houses passing the carefully arranged Bon-michi and using the Mukae-bi to find their way. The purpose of Obon is to salute, welcome, and send them away safely and without fail.
Overwhelming number of examples show that they set July 13th as the date of “Mukae-bon”, and in many regions they set 15th or 16th as the date of “Okuri-bon”. As the core events of Obon is held in the period between Mukae-bon and Okuri-bon, its schedule and contents are highly common nationwide.
“Bon Dancing” is mainly held between July 13th to 16th which is exactly the climax of Obon.
The event of Mukae-bi is held in the early-evening of July 13th. Mukae-bi is the earmark for the spirits just like Bon-dourou.
In many regions, they say “salute the spirits early and send them off late.”, and they often build the fire in the early-evening so it won’t be too late at night.
According to “Nihon no Matsuri (The festivals of Japan)” written by Kunio Yanagita, the festivals of Japan was held originally at night. The real “festival time” finally begins from Mukae-bi.
The location to burn the Mukae-bi is generally;
1.The gate or the front yard of a house
There are some interesting examples such as; people lead the spirits from the top of the mountain with a big torch, or in the houses of shin-bon, there is an event called “Hyaku-hattai” that they burn 108 torches and salute the spirits. These are the variations of the Mukae-bi.
The materials that are burnt in Mukae-bi are generally ogara (something that is made by drying the pedicle of hemp). This is sold in flower shops in the Obon season. In some regions, they burn straw, mamegara (parts of pulses that people don’t eat, such as pods) bark of a white birch.
“Ogara”, the material of Mukae-bi
The performance of Mukae-bi
An interesting performance is done in the occasion of “Mukae-bi”. They say something as if the ancestor is really present, and they guide them all the way to the Bon-dana of each house.
“Onjii, Onbaa, korewo akarini ocha nomini oidenashite kudasare (Dear grandpa and grandma come over here to have a cup of green tea following this light.) Saiji Shuuzoku Goi
Light up the hanging lantern and lead the spirits to the houses and guide them to Bon-dana. In some regions, they prepare water in the houses, and they have the spirits to wash their feet before the spirits enter the houses.
There is an example in the Edo Era that they acted as if they carried their ancestors on their shoulders and enter the house and lower them in front of Bon-dana.In the end, they light the fire in the Bon-dana, and offer water. They use the fire of the hanging lantern that was used to guide the spirits home.
The representative objet d’art of Obon would be the cows and horses made of eggplants and cucumbers attached with sticks as their feet. These folkways are said to be the “vehicle of the ancestors” and they are called Shouryou-uma. It is deeply related with “the reception and send-off” of the spirits.
In many regions from Hokkaido to central Japan, they make Shouryou-uma in the 16th, Okuri-bon. They make horses and cows with the eggplants and cucumbers used as funeral offerings, and throw it to the rivers and seas together with the other funeral offerings.
In the other hand, in the Kanto region, they make them in Mukae-bon, 13th, and throw them in Okuri-bon. In this case, there are 2 types of regions. In one region, they make the cows in Mukae-bon, and make horses in Okuri-bon. In other regions, they make these in the opposite way. The point of view of the former one is; “Make the cows to salute the spirits in a courteous manner, and make the horses to have them go back in a hurry. This shows a strong sense of fear to the new spirits that are not reposed enough. And the point of view of the latter one is; “Salute the spirits early with the horses, and have them take their time in the way back on cows. This shows fellowship to the ancestors and spirits who came a long way back to their houses in Obon.
The sense of fear and fellowship to the spirits both show a delicate and rich feeling of Obon.
Haka-mairi (Visit the grave)
The custom to visit the grave is widely seen in Obon.
There are many regions that visit the graves in “Mukae” and “Okuri”, as I mentioned before. However, in regions like Kanto Region, they visit the graves in the middle of Obon (=Bon-chu) which is called “Rusu-mairi”, or “Rusu-mimai”. It is a wonder what kind of meaning there is in visiting the empty graves that they already have saluted the spirits.
Holding a service for the departed souls is the purpose of the events of Obon. However, there are events that are considered to repose the spirits of a person alive.
In the 14th and 15th of Obon, there is an event that they visit people alive such as; “relatives of the parent’s side” (parents, matchmakers, godparents), other relatives, acquaintances and give gifts to them. This is called “Bon-rei”. There are regions that call Bon-rei “Iki-mitama”, “Iki-bon”, and “Shou-bon”. This shows an attitude of repose to the spirits that are alive.
Many people return to their native place in Obon. Although it is not being very much aware today, some people point out that the esprit of Iki-mitama (You should repose the spirits of parents and the people alive in Obon) is living as one of the cultural background of these rush of holiday-makers in the Obon season.
*Bon-rei and Shougatsu-rei
Bon-rei is an event that corresponds to “Shougatsu-rei” of the New Year. There are still many people who visit their relatives in the New Year. Generally it is said that “New Year is a Shinto ritual, and Obon is a Buddhist service”, and it is considered that Obon does not have to do with auspicious events. However, there are regions that exchange greetings such as; “Congratulations for the good Obon.” in the houses that there was no sadness during the last year. We can see similarity with the New Year in this.
*Gift-giving of Bon-rei
Various presents are exchanged in Bon-rei. “Ochu-gen” is still active today, and it originates from the gifts of Bon-rei. In the old-time China, they called January 15th “Jou-gen” and July 15th “Chu-gen”. This is the origin of the name.
The contents of the gifts also draw attention. Representative examples are field crops such as; Japanese vermicelli, flour, and mackerel.
A research says that, the period during April through June in the lunar calendar is the season of “starvation” when the stockpile becomes scarce, and the reason why they frequently offer field crops (Japanese vermicelli, flour, eggplant, cucumber) as funeral offerings is that they can have harvest of the fields in July, and they shared the “happiness” that they could get through the period of starvation. We can see from this that Obon is a realistic festival that heals the decline of the vitality in the summer season. Also, it makes us think that holding a service for the departed soul with abundant funeral offerings was an association from the suffering of starvation.
Sending fish and meat like Sashi-saba (A hot mackerel which is salt aired) and salted salmon is also an old custom, and it can be considered that it shows a folk custom before the formation of a conventional wisdom that none the less “Obon is a Buddhist service”.
*Songs of Bon Dancing and mackerel
“Mackerels” also appear in the songs of Bon Dancing.
The famous dancing song “Harukoma” of Gujo Dancing (Gifu Prefecture) is widely known for the refrain;”Shichiryou sambuno harukoma harukoma(Horses of the spring which costs 7ryou and 3bu)”, but in the old-time it was called “Saba”, and it was sung; “Issen gorin-no yaki-saba yaki-saba (A broiled mackerel that costs 1sen 5rin)”
Also, in the dancing song called “Sambyaku”, there is a lyric saying;”Etten bokka no ninara sokoni orosuna sabakusai. (If it’s the load of the Echizen peddlers, don’t unload it there, because it smells of mackerel) “.We can know from this that even in the village in a mountain valley where there is no sea, mackerels were something familiar.