Today marks the start of the traditional three day celebration of the O-Bon (お盆) or Bon (盆) Festival in the Kanto and Tohoku regions of Japan.
In 2009 I was living in a very shitamachi-jyōcho (下町情緒) area of Ikebukuro in Tokyo where the festival was duly celebrated by the local neighbourhood. A tiny park area near our apartment was taken over with small stalls selling food or offering children’s games, and in the centre a scaffold tower, called a yagura (櫓 or 矢倉), had been constructed. Atop the tower a taiko (太鼓) drum had been set up, below which was a platform that encircled the tower. Loud music was playing from speakers set up around the space, and there were paper lanterns hung from poles and from the trees. Many of the people attending wore traditional, colourful yukata (浴衣), a light cotton summer-style kimono.
The Bon Festival, is the Lantern Festival or the Festival of the Dead. It is the traditional day of the Buddhist calendar on which the Japanese people remember their ancestors. It’s a day to come together, reuniting with family and the local community at home; a time to tend the ancestral graves, and a time when the ancestral spirits are supposed to visit the ancestral shrines in people’s houses. It’s a tradition which is believed to go back as far as 500 years. The month in which Bon is celebrated depends of which type of calendar (lunar or solar) the particular area follows, consequently other parts of Japan hold the festival in August.
The Bon Festival is best noted across Japan for its characteristic dance styles, Bon Odori (盆踊り), which can vary from region to region. The dancers usually process in a very measured and mannered style around the yagura, making very precise gestures with their arms and legs, sometimes turning in to the yagura and sometimes turning away from it. In our neighbourhood the festival began early in the day and we could hear the music in our apartment. We went down to take a look, but the festival really comes into its own once the sun has gone down and the lanterns are all lit – this is when everyone, especially the small children in their yukata, joined in the dancing. It reminded me somewhat of the traditional maypole dances and summer fêtes back in the UK.
The day had been a typically sunny summer’s day, and the evening was nice and warm. There was quite a magical, relaxed and friendly atmosphere, with familiar faces from local the neighbourhood all smiling and saying ‘hello’ as everyone mingled near the yagura. It was the perfect day to round off the evening with a visit to our favourite family run unagi (鰻), grilled eel restaurant, just downstairs from our apartment – 美味しかった!
The accompanying photographs and short films were all taken by me at our, very small and very local, Bon Festival in Ikebukuro, Tokyo in July 2009.