Obon is time for family gathering to remember ancestors
For three days from Sunday, Sep. 3rd through Tuesday, Sep. 5th, many private businesses on Okinawa will be closed, although all retail shops, restaurants and public offices stay open. It is Obon, one of the three primary holidays on the Okinawa calendar.
Obon is a time for celebrating life, and welcoming ancestor spirits home for a family reunion. It’s a Buddhist event, when ancestor spirits are believed to return to the human world in order to visit relatives. Traditions are everywhere, and you will see them at every turn during these three days. An although Obon was celebrated in the rest of Japan from Aug. 13th through 15th, Okinawa Obon follows the lunar a.k.a. Chinese calendar and is celebrated Sep. 3rd~ 5th this year.
It is said that on this single day of the year, the iron port of hell is opened, and the deceased are allowed leave. Buddhist services are held at temples and in private homes for ancestors, friends and relatives who’ve died, with particular focus on those who’ve died within the past year.
Sunday is the first day of Obon, “Unkeh,” is a time for families to gather at the primary family residence to purify the home and its altar. Family members will place fruit, water, sake, tea and a pair of sugar cane stalks on the altar in preparation for the visiting spirits. In the evening, the family lights candles both at the altar and the gateway to the house to invite the spirits inside. Obon is a time of celebration, and Okinawa’s second unique custom, Eisa, is performed on streets everywhere. Eisa is a traditional dance to the accompaniment of drum beat and specific sanshin music.
Obon is also a time of gift-giving, and a time for sharing. Children and grandchildren return from mainland Japan to Okinawa to pay homage to the ancestors.
It’s a time for Ochugen, the presenting of gifts to relatives and bosses and colleagues in the workplace. Okinawa stores rack up hundreds of millions of yen in sales, with typical Ochugen gift sets costing ¥2,000~5,000. Food seasonings, towels, beer and gift certificates are popular choices.
On the second day of Obon called “Nakabi,” relatives visit each others’ houses to greet and pray in front of home altars. That is also the day when many people visit their superiors and colleagues. The first and the final day are very busy at households who have their own altars.
Tuesday, the final day of Obon, is “Uukui,” a time when the family gathers and celebrates with a lavish dinner before preparing to send the ancestral spirits back to the other world. A variety of foods are offered and special paper money, “uchikabi,” is offered to the spirits for use in the other world. Uchikabi is paper imprinted with a coin pattern.
About midnight, family members will remove the offerings from the altar and move them to the family gate in front of the home. Incense will be lit, uchikabi burned, and the families say goodbye to the ancestral spirits for another year. Okinawa tradition is that spirits will carry the uchikabi money with them, and use the sugar cane stalks as walking sticks.