Celebrate 500 years of tradition with Mitama Matsuri 2019 - Reuters News Agency

Celebrate 500 years of tradition with Mitama Matsuri 2019

As Japanese families gather to celebrate their ancestors at Mitama Matsuri, let’s take a look at its heritage

REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

By Sandra Sparrowhawk | Jul 12, 2019

Every July, Tokyo’s controversial Yasukuni Shrine commemorates the souls of the departed at Mitama Matsuri. It is believed that each year during Obon – a Buddhist custom to honor the spirits of one’s ancestors – the souls of the departed return to earth to visit their relatives.

To mark the occasion, over 30,000 yellow lanterns are lit along the path towards the shrine to guide the ancestors’ spirits. Traditional dances are performed, graves are cleaned for the arrival, and food offerings are made at temples and home altars.

Though Obon is held for four days across Japan, the starting dates for the event vary within different regions of the country. In Tokyo, Mitama Matsuri is observed from the 13th to the 16th day of the seventh month of the year, which falls on July according to the solar calendar.

However, following the introduction of the Gregorian calendar at the beginning of the Meiji era (1868-1912) and the varying responses from Japan’s prefectures, the festival is held on three different dates each year: Shichigatsu Bon (mid-July) celebrated in eastern Japan, Hachigatsu Bon (mid-August), and Kyū Bon, or Old Bon, celebrated on the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar in the northern part of the Kantō region.

The origins of Obon go back to the story of Mokuren, a disciple of the Buddha, who used his supernatural powers to contact the spirit of his deceased mother. Upon finding out that her spirit had fallen into the ‘Realm of Hungry Ghosts’ (in Buddhism, a ‘hungry ghost’ is a supernatural being driven by intense hunger for physical desires), the disciple asked Buddha to release his mother’s soul from her suffering. Buddha then instructed him to make offerings to the Buddhist monks who had just completed their summer retreat. Mokuren did as asked and thus, his mother’s spirit was freed.

Rituals

Prior to the start of the celebrations, it is customary for Japanese families to reunite and return to their hometowns to clean the departed’s graves and place food offerings, such as fruits and vegetables, in front of a Buddhist altar (butsudan). The tradition goes back to the belief that the souls of the deceased return to their homes once a year.

On the first day, in a process called the Mukae-bon, paper lanterns (chochin) are both hung inside homes and brought to graveyards in a bid to guide one’s ancestral spirits back home. During the matsuri (festival), families will traditionally burn Mukae-bi, or welcoming fires, to receive the ancestors. The wood that is burnt during Obon is called Ogara, a split firewood made of pine tree.

REUTERS/Thomas Peter

The second day features one of Obon’s key attractions: the Bon Odori dance. The traditional dance, unique to the festival, was originally performed in order to both welcome and send off the visiting spirits. Nowadays, however, the dance serves mostly entertainment purposes.

Today, the styles of dance vary from region to region, with every prefecture having its own local dance routine and accompanying music. Bon Odori are typically held at shrines, temples, parks and gardens where they are usually performed on a yagura stage (a temporary scaffold) and all visitors are welcome to participate.

The third day of the festivities features a memorial service held for the ancestors by their families. If the family member has passed away since the previous year’s Obon, a hatsubon, or first Buddhist Obon, is held in their honor.

At the end of Mitama, floating lanterns (toro nagashi) engraved with the family’s crest are floated down a river in order to guide the spirits back to their eternal resting place – an occasion that is marked with a fire ritual known as Okuri-bi (“sending fire”).

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