Obon

I know these posts would be infinitely more interesting were I actually in the place I’m writing about, but these will have to do. It’s a least a way to sort through the 60000 pictures I took in Japan (praise digital). Obon is the yearly Buddhist holiday season where people in Japan pay respects to their dead relatives. Usually, they travel as a family unit to grave sites all around Japan. Train tickets are difficult to get and it’s usually standing room only. While it certainly is an important holiday and helps to keep the memory of those who have long since passed, I think that it’s likely just an excuse to help keep the family ties of the living secure.

The holiday season is usually prefaced by Obon festivals where folks, young and old do the Bon-odori, or Obon dance. The festivals are principally for younger children, who are on summer vacation at the time. They can play games and win small prizes at the festivals, in addition to learning the Bon-Odori from their aging community members. I got to go to the small Obon festival in Okubo, a small suburb of Akashi city in Hyogo. Here is some poorly shot video of the event. You can’t see much, but at least you can hear what’s going on.


The next day, I was able to travel to Tennoji in Osaka to visit the famous Shitennou Temple, one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Japan, originally built in 593. It’s a large compound, that houses temple buildings, a school, a hospital and serves as home to the famous Shitennouji flea market on the 21st of every month. The flea market is a great place to go and get odd items from Japan, like guitars with Loudness stickers on them, and old Japanese vinyl. Take some cash, some things aren’t cheap. On the day, I was there, there was a crafts flea market including knife vendors from Niigata, wood carvers and papermakers. I used to teach not very far from this area and many of my students came from the Shitennouji school. I remember they routinely complain about their uniforms, which they claim make them look like gravestones.

Once you make it past all the old ladies, you can check out the temple grounds, it’s well worth the trip. If you can get there at night, they have a candle lighting ceremony. I couldn’t make it to the candle lighting, but it looked as if the entire compound gets lit up. Check out some photos (that I didn’t take) in the link above. Shitennouji was apparently hit during the war and I was able to find an interesting photo of the damage on this site. Obviously, it’s a beautiful compound now.

After Shitennouji, I was able to make it to Isshin-ji, which was under construction when I lived here in the late 90’s. Compared to Shitennouji, Isshin-ji was packed with visitors. It is a smaller, but more modern compound, definitely aimed at formal (and money holding) visitors. To get a sense of the difference between the two, all one has to do is check out their respective websites, Shitennouji’s being a in house production, whereas Isshinji obviously paid some professional organization to construct theirs. It’s a beautiful site and I got to visit the Buddhist supply stores along the way. You can also pick up traditional Asian remedies for your gout or constipation condition, while you’re at it. Like the US, religious institutions are primarily utilized by the aged. Isshinji also has a live camera so that you can monitor the temple when the sun is out.

Isshinji is also known for being a temple where the god of alcohol abstinence is enshrined. Apparently, from as much as my reading skills will allow, a relation of Ieyasu Tokugawa was stuck here during a battle, and ended up dying due to alcohol poisoning. From then on, Isshinji has been known to be a place where people who are having trouble with alcohol, or whose families suffer because of an alcoholic, can come and receive spiritual support. Patrons purchase a “Syamoji” (rice paddles pictured at the right) and write their own message asking for help. It’s like an Buddhist AA. I was struck by the sincerity of the messages. Whereas most of these sorts of offerings ask for love pairings or to graduate from school, this one really struck home. In a country plagued by unspoken alcohol abuse and societal excuses for alcoholic excess, this was a stark reminder that, under the veil of denial, real problems do exist as anywhere else. This is perhaps a first step that alcoholics may take before joining the Danshukai, a Buddhist based alcohol abstinence society.

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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

One response to “Obon”

  1. Ferunando-Sama says :

    Hey Peter, this made me think of the past of a very good friend. Really interesting

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