Throughout the year, Japan has several days dedicated to paying respects to the souls of the dearly departed. Both the spring and autumn equinoxes are national holidays, when families visit the graves of their deceased relatives, to clean the site, decorate it with flowers and candles, and pray. Obon is the most important of all Japanese holidays dedicated to the dead. The date varies depending on region, but falls sometime between mid-July and mid-August. All the grave-cleaning and praying of the equinoxes happens, but Obon lasts multiple days and is usually accompanied by some type of festival. Often, Obon festivals are set up near a shrine or temple, so part of the celebration is stopping by to say a quick prayer.
Festivals here are very similar to any type of fair in the United States, but with a Japanese flair. Yukata- light-weight, summer kimono- are worn by both men and women. More junk food is consumed than is probably healthy. Fried soba noodles is the most-loved, followed by chocolate-covered bananas in the dessert category. Children play games to win prizes, my favorite of which is goldfish scooping. Hundreds of little fish swim around a huge bowl while people try to catch them using small rice paper dippers. The challenge is trapping one without ripping the thin rice paper, which tears especially easily when wet.
At Obon festivals, women in kimono do a communal dance to music men play on traditional Japanese instruments, like taiko drums. Most Obon dances are a series of fluid movements performed in a slowly rotating circle, but the exact choreography is unique to each town. People from the community can join the dance by forming an outer ring around the main dancers in the center.
While Obon and similar holidays deal with death and the soul, they are only quasi-spiritual events. Many people pray at their family gravesite or a nearby shrine, but it’s really more of a Japanese cultural practice than a religious observance. Since I attend church weekly and sometimes do zen meditation, I’ve had Japanese people comment on how spiritual I am. These same people wouldn’t consider themselves religious by any means, even though they offer prayers when they visit shrines and most likely have their own altars set up at home.