Traditional events in Japan (August) About the Obon of Kyoto


About obon

Obon” refers to a Buddhist ritual conducted in all over Japan in mid-August, to commemorate ancestors. Obon is also called urabon-e. In general, obon starts from “mukae bon (welcoming the spirits of the dead)” on August 13th of the Gregorian calendar, and lasts until “okuri bon (seeing the spirits of the dead off)” on August 16th. On the day of mukae bon, people light “mukaebi (ceremonial bonfire to welcome the spirits)” so that the spirits of the ancestors can return to their old homes without getting lost, and on the day of okuri bon, people light “okuribi (ceremonial bonfire to see the spirits off)” to see the spirits of the ancestors off.   
Have you ever seen something like this? 

In Japan, people place a cucumber horse and an eggplant cow at the entrance of a house during the obon period. Horses made of cucumbers and cows made of eggplants are spirit animals to be used by the spirits of ancestors when visiting this world from the other world, and when going back. A cucumber is made into a fleet-footed horse to bring the ancestors as quickly as possible. On the other hand, an eggplant is made into a leaden-footed cow so that the ancestors would be taken back slowly. During the obon period, numerous traditional events are carried out in all over Japan. Events vary according to the custom and religious sect in each region.


Obon in Kyoto

Obon in Kyoto starts with events on August 13th such as rokudou mairi to welcome oshourai san (the spirits) by striking a welcoming bell, and ends at night on 16th when seeing the spirits off with daimonji gozan no okuribi (five giant bonfires lit on mountains). On August 23rd and 24th the event called “jizoubon” is held in each town to cherish children. Events such as mandou-e (dedicating candles to Buddha), toro nagashi (releasing candle-lit lanterns into rivers to guide the spirits of ancestors back to the other world), bon odori (bon dance) and rokusai nenbutsu odori (the Buddhist dance to the two percussion instruments, a bell and a drum to honor the ancestors) which is designated as an important intangible cultural asset, are conducted in many places within the city.    

The city of Kyoto is lit up with candles dedicated to Buddha and lanterns at night, and is colored with a magical air. There are many good old rituals inherited from old times, while new traditions are being made as well.


[Around August 7th to 10th Oshorai san mukae (welcoming the spirits)]

In Kyoto, there is a tradition to worship a temple to welcome the spirits of ancestors during four days from August 7th to 10th.

→Kyoto: Oshorai mukae article


[August 16th Gozan no okuribi (five giant bonfires on mountains to see the spirits off)]

Around 20:00 on August 16th, lights go off on the billboards in the city, and five bonfires in shape of letters (“大文字(large or great)”, “妙(wondrous dharma)”, “法(wondrous dharma)”, “船形(the shape of a boat)”, “左大文字(large or great)” and “鳥居形(the shape of a tori or shrine gate)”) are lit up on 5 mountains from east to west in about an hour.

People pray for their ancestors while watching the bonfires.

→Kyoto: Gozan no okuribi article


[Around August 23rd and 24th Jizoubon in Kyoto]

In Kyoto, “jizoubon” is conducted on August 23nd and 24rd. Jizoubon is a ritual held to protect children from demons from hell. Red lanterns unique to jizoubon are decorated, and each town comes up with and carries out numerous events in front of jizouson (the statue of the guardian deity of children). It is a festival for children, and children are given snacks, draw a raffle, do juzumawashi and participate in many other events.  

→Kyoto: Jizoubon article


Summing up

It is often said that “people in Kyoto cherish obon”. Obon in the old city of Kyoto has many traditional events unseen in other regions. You might enjoy the atmosphere slightly different from usual times, if you come to Kyoto during the obon period

There are many events such as bon odori (bon dance) and ennichi (summer festival held in a temple) which anyone can participate. Do enjoy the atmosphere unique to obon in Kyoto, as well as summer events

→Kyoto: Other events article