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Lesson Transcript

Hello, and welcome to the Culture Class: Holidays in Japan Series on JapanesePod101.com. In this series, we’re exploring the traditions behind Japanese holidays and observances. I’m Becky, and you're listening to Season 1, Lesson 15: Obon, Festival of Souls.
お盆 (Obon) is held on or around the 15th of July or August and is an event in which families and relatives hold a memorial service to welcome the spirits of their deceased ancestors. The word Bon is said to be an abbreviation of the name for the Ghost Festival, which came from China. The Ghost Festival is held to save the spirits of deceased parents and ancestors from suffering. This event was brought over to Japan, and together with the Japanese custom of ancestor worship, お盆 (Obon) in its current incarnation originated in the Edo Period, beginning in the 17th century.
Now, before we go into more detail, do you know the answer to this question: people believe that at お盆 (Obon), ancestral spirits come back from the afterlife and then return to it. What do spirits use to go back and forth between the afterlife?
If you don’t already know, you’ll find out a bit later. Keep listening.
お盆 (Obon) was originally held around July 15th of the lunar calendar, but after the introduction of the solar calendar in the late 1800s, it moved to July 13-16 in Tokyo, and to August 13-16 in many other regions.
Although the details of お盆 (Obon) vary depending on region, let's look at some common customs. On the 13th, people light lanterns in order to welcome the ancestral spirits back home. The fire from these lights shows the spirits the location of the home. On the 14th and 15th, time is spent with the ancestral spirits. People lay food offerings at the household Buddhist altar for the returning ancestral spirits. On the 16th, they light the departure lamps and the spirits depart.
盆踊り (Bon-odori), meaning the Bon Dance, is another custom performed at お盆 (Obon). A watchtower is raised in a square, and people dance around it in time with the beat of the drum on the turret. While originally it was a ritual dance for the memorial service in which the spirits are welcomed, these days it feels more like a festival with booths lined up. Obon Dances vary among regions. One famous version is 阿波踊り(Awa-odori), meaning Awa Dance.
While the timing of the festival varies by region, お盆 (Obon) generally refers to the period before and after August 15th. During this period many companies close for お盆休み (Obon yasumi), meaning Obon holiday, and people go back to their hometowns to visit their families or go on a family vacation. お盆 (Obon) is not just a religious event held to honor the ancestral spirits; it has also taken on a greater meaning as a national holiday.
Here’s our fun fact for the day! Are you familiar with the phrase, "It's like お盆 (Obon) and New Year's both came at once?" Because お盆 (Obon) and New Year's Day are both busy, enjoyable times when families gather together, this phrase is used to refer to busy times filled with happiness.
Now it's time to answer our quiz question: what do spirits use to go back and forth between the afterlife?
The correct answer is that people believe the spirits ride a horse and a cow to travel back and forth. At お盆 (Obon), cucumbers, eggplants, and disposable chopsticks are used to create figurines of the horse and cow, which are then put on display. The cucumber represents the horse, and the eggplant the cow. The idea is that the spirits ride on a horse to come home quickly, and ride on a cow to go back slowly.
Well listeners, how was this lesson?
Did you learn something new?
In your country, do you have a holiday with a memorial service to the spirits of your deceased ancestors?
Please leave us a comment telling us at JapanesePod101.com.
And we’ll see you next time!