Obon and Awa Odori Explained

It’s Obon week in Japan! Iya has gotten insanely busy over the last few days. People are coming from all over Japan, but why? Well, let us give you a simplified rundown of what’s going on, not just in Iya, but all across the country right now.

Obon, or Bon, is a Buddhist tradition originating over 500 years ago. The festival lasts three days, during which families return to their ancestral homes to clean the family grave and honor their dead. It’s during this time, it is said, that the spirits of the ancestors make their way back to the household altars. Today, Obon is treated as a week for family reunion and holiday.

So what’s been happening around here? Well, a week before Obon kicked off, the residents of our little hamlet (us included) got together way too early in the morning and cleaned up the road. This included sweeping leaves and branches up, cutting the grass along the roadside, and clearing the drainage ditches for the better part of a kilometer and a half. We did this so when people return to visit their families their way is cleared.

You may have heard us mention Iya, like many rural areas of Japan, has experienced massive depopulation. However, it remains the ancestral home of the younger generations who now reside in the cities, and during Obon they return, making it seem for just a few days like Iya is more than just an off the beaten track tourist destination. You might even experience a little traffic.

“What about the pictures you guys posted of the people dancing in the streets?”

Bon Odori (meaning Bon Dance), is a style of dance performed during Obon and varies from region to region. Each one has its own style of dance and accompanying music. Here in our area we have Awa Odori (Awa being the old feudal administration name for Tokushima Prefecture), which happens to be the largest dance festival in all of Japan! The exact history for this variation is up for debate. Some say it is a direct derivative of Bon Odori. Others say it started as a wild and drunken celebration after the completion of Tokushima Castle. I personally like the idea of an entire city consuming large amounts of sake and having a dance party in the streets, so I’ll support that theory.

There you have it! This week is all about family get-togethers and dancing in the streets. If that sounds like your kind of a party, why not visit Japan and experience it yourself next year? Just be sure to visit the Iya Valley when you do!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *