Tuesday, August 17, 2010

August 15 ------ It's Bon Odori (Bon festival)

Assalamualaikum w.b.t (Peace be upon you)

The day before yesterday was August 15, 2010. In Japan, this date marks a significant festival celebrated in most part of Japan, the Bon Odori, also known as the Bon Festival. Originally, on this day, the Japanese will dance to welcome the spirit of their dead ancestors home. People believe that their ancestors' spirits come back to their homes to be reunited with their family during Obon and pray for the spirits. For the reason, Obon is an important family gathering time, and many people return to their hometowns. Typically, the celebration begins on 13th and ends on 16th August. Today, Bon dance is performed as a folk dance. Today, besides Japan, the Bon is also celebrated in Brazil, Malaysia, Canada and USA.

Japanese people clean their houses and place a variety of food offerings such as vegetables and fruits to the spirits of ancestors in front of a butsudan (Buddhist altar). Chochin lanterns and arrangements of flower are usually placed by the butsudan. On this day, some Japanese will put 'something' outside of their houses. Usually it was made of a cucumber or a eggplant. It's not an offering. Let's see what this 'something' looks like.

There you go (Shouryou - uma)

As you can see, the cucumber and the eggplant were pierced with a broken wooden chopstick. They will then put it outside the house. If I'm not mistaken, the cucumber is the symbol of a HORSE, while the eggplant is a COW. They'll put the 'horse' outside their house during the early day of festival, and the 'cow' at the end of the festival. The reason is, they wanted their ancestors to descend from heaven and come to their house quick, so the spirits need something fast to carry them. So, they took out the horse. As for the cow, cow are slower than horse. Which means, they wanted a slow goodbye. They wanted their ancestors to ascend back to heaven slowly. Well, it's Japan. It's cuter isn't it?  On the first day of Obon, chochin lanterns are lit inside houses, and people go to their family's grave  to call their ancestors' spirits back home. It's called mukae-bon (迎え盆). In some regions, fires called mukae-bi (迎え火) are lit at the entrances of houses to guide the spirits. On the last day, people bring the ancestor's spirits back to the grave, hanging chochin painted with the family crest to guide the spirits. It's called okuri-bon (送り盆). In some regions, fires called okuri-bi (送り火) are lit at entrances of houses to send the ancestors' spirits. During Obon, the smell of senko (Japanese incense sticks) fills Japanese houses and cemeteries. Toro Nagashi (floating lanterns) is a tradition often observed during Obon. People send off their ancestors' spirits with the lanterns, lit by a candle inside and floated down a river to the ocean.

Shouryou-uma (精霊ー馬) (image above)

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.

Also, Bon Odori (folk dance) is widely practiced on Obon nights. Styles of dance vary from area to area, but usually Japanese taiko drums keep the rhythms. People go to their neighborhood Bon Odori held at parks, gardens, shrines, or temples, wearing yukata (summer kimono) and dance around a yagura stage. Anyone can participate in Bon Odori, so join the circle and imitate what others are doing.

Yagura stage (Selangor, Malaysia ---- Bon Odori Festival, July 14th 2007)

I wonder, how they imagine their ancestors appearance. Is it cute like Casper? Or is it something like the ghost from the Ghost-buster? Imagine the Malay have such festival, for example. I don't think people will dance happily under the moonlight, and get ready to welcome our ancestors like that. Stop imagining things lad!! It gives me goosebumps. Why, the Malay hantu are just too many. And they like to wear white clothes............creepy! 

Hungry Ghost Festival

In China, it is known as the Ghost Festival or the Hungry Ghost Festival. Let me take some info from the wiki. "The Ghost Festival also known as the Hungry Ghost Festival is a traditional Chinese festival and holiday celebrated by Chinese in many countries. In the Chinese calendar (a lunisolar calendar), the Ghost Festival is on the 15th night of the seventh lunar month. In Chinese tradition, the fifteenth day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar is called Ghost Day and the seventh month in general is regarded as the Ghost Month (鬼月), in which ghosts and spirits, including those of the deceased ancestors, come out from the lower realm. Distinct from both the Qingming Festival (in Spring) and Chung Yeung Festival (in Autumn) in which living descendants pay homage to their deceased ancestors, on Ghost Day, the deceased are believed to visit the living.

Who do you think the seats were reserved for? image credit: (http://www.ibudgethotel.com/singapore-hotels/index.php/travel-guide/festivals/hungry-ghost-festival/)

On the fifteenth day the realms of Heaven and Hell and the realm of the living are open and both Taoists and Buddhists would perform rituals to transmute and absolve the sufferings of the deceased. Intrinsic to the Ghost Month is ancestor worship, where traditionally the filial piety of descendants extends to their ancestors even after their deaths. Activities during the month would include preparing ritualistic food offerings, burning incense, and burning joss paper, a papier-mache form of material items such as clothes, gold and other fine goods for the visiting spirits of the ancestors. Elaborate meals (often vegetarian meals) would be served with empty seats for each of the deceased in the family treating the deceased as if they are still living. Ancestor worship is what distinguishes Qingming Festival from Ghost Festival because the latter includes paying respects to all deceased, including the same and younger generations, while the former only includes older generations. Other festivities may include, buying and releasing miniature paper boats and lanterns on water, which signifies giving directions to the lost ghosts and spirits of the ancestors and other deities" (wikipedia).

The Climax of Obon

If July of the lunar calendar is "Bon Zuki (the month of Bon)", the few days around "July 15th" would be the focus of Obon as a whole, so to say the "climax" of the event. The position of the "focus" of Obon is 13th to 16th of either July or August focusing on the "15th of July or August" in most regions, and this tendency does not change whether it is Shichigatu Bon (Bon in July) or Hachigatsu Bon (Bon in August) or Kyu Bon (Obon of the lunar calendar).And as we see in the following "The events of Obon", core events of Obon, such as "Mukae Bon (Bon event to greet the ancestor's spirits)" and "Okuri Bon (Bon event to send the ancestor's spirits off)" are scheduled during the 13th to 16th of July or August.Why does "the 15th of July or August" become the focus?The Buddhist event "Urabon-e" has been held on July 15th from a long time ago, and it is no doubt that this schedule is affecting Obon as a folk event.However, if we observe from the folk aspect, and as we saw in "The relationship with the full moon", "the 15th of July or August" originally had various reasons to be the focus of Obon, and we can consider that Buddhism provided a shape (explanation) to this.

Preparations for the festival 

  • Bon-michi-tsukuri
It is widely believed that the spirits which return in Obon come back to each houses from mountains and graves near the villages. (Don't think too much about how the hell's pot is connected with mountains and graves.)Bon-michi-tsukuri is the work to arrange the return path for these spirits. It is also called "Shouryou-michi", and "Tsuitachi-michi".The work is called "Michi-nagi", "Michi-gari", "Kari-michi-tsukuri", and they mow the grass in both sides of the roads (the roads from the grave to the houses, the border of the villages, and the heads of the mountains) in teamwork. It could be a tough work for a hot season.

  • Bon-Dourou
    The spirits that come back to this world head for each "houses". To be as a sign for this, people set up hanging lanterns and paper lanterns in the high places of the gardens and around the main houses after Bon-iri. This is "Bon-Dourou". In some regions, they call "Taka-Dourou".Bon-Dourou is a very old folk event, and it is mentioned even in the famous "Meigetsu-ki" written by Teika Fujiwara that something like Bon-Dourou was performed by the citizens already in the Kamakura Era.Especially in the families which a person died within a year from the previous Obon, or in another words, in the families that there is a "New Spirit" which have the first Obon, make a strong effort in Bon-Dourou. The period in which the hanging lanterns are set up will be longer than the others. There are regions where they keep setting up the lanterns even after Okuri-Bon and until July 31, and in other regions they keep setting up the lantern for 3 years after the New Spirit come about, and throw the lantern into the river in the third year.

    • Bon-bana-tori
      Bon-bana-tori is an event that people gather flowers from the mountains before the Mukae-bon of the 13th and offer them to the Bon shelves and graves. In some regions, they call it "Bon-bana-‚�ukae". In many regions they perform it from 11th to 12th, but in some regions they gather the flowers on 7th and offer them on 13th.As they gather the flowers from the mountains where it is believed that the spirits live, it is thought that it is an event that corresponds to the New Year event "Wakagi-tori". The flowers are considered to be the "anchorage of the spirits" of the ancestors just like the wakagi (young tree).The category of Bon-bana varies depending on the region and it is colorful. Bon-bana can be a few varieties of flowering grasses of autumn, or in some regions, it can be any flower if it is a flower of the season.

      • Kusa-ichi (Plant market)
      "Kusa-ichi" which deals with goods necessary for the Bon-Jitaku is also a seasonal tradition of Obon.It corresponds to "Toshi-no-ichi" of the year-end. The name varies depending on the region, such as; "Bon-ichi", "Bon-kusa-ichi", "Kusa-no-ichi", "Bon-no-ichi", "Tamuke-no-ichi", "Hana-ichi". The goods that are dealt with in Kusa-ichi are; "Autumn grass", "Lotus leaves", "Chinese black pine", "Horses and cows made of eggplant", "Wile rice", "Hanging lantern", "Drums (for Bon Dancing)", "Round fan", "Paper lantern", "Ogara (The pedicle of a hemp after ripping its bark)". You can also enjoy a little bit of the mood of the "Kusa-ichi" in the shopping street of the urban region if you go to the shop-front of the general stores and vegetable shops.

      • Bon-dana-tsukuri
      They prepare special shelf in the houses to salute the spirits that come back in Obon. This is called the "Bon-dana". In some regions they call it; "Shouryou-dana", or "Senzo-dana". This is a very important study in the research of Obon, and even today, it is the subject of a fierce argument (confer the study edition for details). The material and how to make Bon-dana differs depending on the region, but generally they make the shelf by using bamboo as the frame, and move the ancestral tablet from the Buddhist altar and offer Bon-bana, water, and funeral offerings. In many cases, the big characteristic is that plural types of "Shelf" are made according to the types of spirits they salute. They make the shelf for the new spirits (the spirits of the people who died within a year) with great politeness. They make a highly wrought shelf with fresh bamboo and cedar leaf. In many cases they set it in front yard and edge of the eaves, and it is built facing the direction of outdoors. In the other hand, "Muen-dana" is made for muen-botoke who died leaving no one to attend to his grave. It is also called "Gaki-dana", and "Hoka-dana". The funeral offering is called gaki-no-meshi and they place field products on the leaves of lotus and aroids. It is usually made in outdoors, but there are regions that don't make shelves and offer funeral offerings placed on leaves under the Bon-dana.


      • Mukae-bi
      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

      At the gate

      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.

      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.

      They call out to the spirits when they burn Mukae-bi as follows;

      "Oojiina, oobaana, umani norite, bekokoni norite, akaruini kitourae, kitourae." ("Grandpa, grandma, ride the horses and cows, and come to the place where the descendants are burning the Mukae-bi.") or "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.). 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. 

      *It is not advisable to read the chants above, especially during nights. 

      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.

      Who to be blame for the loss of forest, increase of greenhouse gases and thinning of ozone layer? The fire is so huge. Only the blind ghosts will not make it back this year. But hey, they can smell right? Just hope they don't mistook the fire as the 'hell'......

      • 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.

      • Bon-rei
      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".

      Kyushu style offering. Set Sail !!

      • http://www.bonodori.net/E/sekai/bonabc1.HTML
      • www.kyo-butsudan.com/mameetc/obon.html
      p/s: For Muslim, this month is the holy month of Ramadhan where all Muslims fast. In Ramadhan, we Muslim believe, all the gates of Heaven is widely open from the beginning of Ramadhan, till the end of Ramadhan. While the gate of Hell is shut tight all along this Ramadhan. Be grateful to Allah Muslims! Yeah, pity to those who waited for their ancestors to visit their home yesterday. "I'm so sorry, son! The gate does not open la tonight. Next month, I drop by your house OK? alalalala......don't be sad! I promise.....OK?

      Hsppy Ramadhan Al- Mubarak to all visitors!