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Celebrating Obon, Japanese and American style

August 17, 2010

“We should leave now”, Joe was anxious about the traffic.

I was skeptical and shook off his concerns with a smile.

“This is not Japan … I can’t see the festival being that popular with Americans and in this heat (high 90’s) — and humidity — (high 70’s).”

I got it totally wrong.

Streams of cars crawled along a road that lead away from the town’s centre. It felt like a funeral procession. Drivers payed attention to fluoro clad attendants waving light wands, and to the bright whirling lights on parked police cars. This wasn’t a crash site, this was the entrance to the Bon Festival at Morikami Gardens in Delray Beach, southern Florida.

Obon or, Bon, is one of the main Japanese festivals held yearly in August when the heat is extreme and the humidity is intense. With its origins in Buddhism, Bon celebrates death or rather the departed spirits of ancestors. As a build up to the actual Bon celebrations, Japanese spend time spring-cleaning their homes and around their ancestors graves. These rituals are not uniquely Japanese and are also carried out in Buddhist countries like South Korea and Taiwan in line with their own celebrations.

On the first day of Bon, Japanese call their ancestors back home with the lighting of lanterns and fires to guide them. On the final day of celebration these ancestral spirits are sent back by putting lanterns into streams and rivers letting them float downstream to the ocean.

During the festival historic cities like Kyoto and Nara hold their own celebrations. Kyoto holds a popular bonfire event which is really all about watching fire but there is a little more to this than flames dancing on wood. In the evening once the sun has set and the sky is dark, the surrounding hills come alive.

Five enormous bonfires are lit but these bonfires aren’t ordinary stacks of wood and the bonfires aren’t ordinary orange blobs of flames on the landscape. Everything in Japan has a meaning behind it and so do these five bonfires — three in Chinese characters and two in other shapes — all are symbolic to Bon. Each fire lasts around 30 minutes and are lit within five minutes of each other. The biggest and most famous bonfire is the character Daimonji, meaning large or great, which is lit first and usually lasts the longest.

It was six years ago when I crowded onto the rooftop of an arts centre in Kyoto with dozens of other wide-eyed foreigners and local Japanese ooohhing and ahhing at the orange glow in the distance. This was one of the best controlled burn offs I had ever seen.

via Wiki Commons

Close to Kyoto  is Nara City, Japan’s ancient capital prior to Kyoto and famous for deer. Every year Nara holds the Lantern Festival in line with Obon. Over 10,000 lanterns made of paper, glass, metal and stone are lit in temples, at shrines and displayed throughout the city streets, waterways and in Nara park. It is spectacular walking around the lanterns lighting the old stone temple steps, an inner calm finds you and takes hold. It’s not about finding your Self, it’s about being present. Forget your camera — or miss the moment.

via 1.bp

Uncertain what to expect when I attended the Bon festival at Morikami Japanese Gardens, I went with low expectations despite the professional looking promotion on its website.  Because I had seen the “real thing” in Japan the bar had been set high, but I wanted to share some of my past experiences with Joe who had a growing interest in Japanese culture.

Off we went late in the afternoon down to Delray approximately thirty minutes drive south. First impressions are lasting and when I  look back on Saturday’s event, what really sticks out from the rest is the crowd. Bon at Morkami was a crowd drawer. People in summer dress along with young women outfitted in Yukatas packed the stuffy marquee to standing room only. They patiently sat through the slow methodical female dance  performed then were mesmerised by small-framed women who pounded and rolled Taiko drums and chimed symbols along with some strong looking men. All of this done in the heat with little in the way of cooling devices. And the crowd was patient.

Stalls and vendors gave visitors a glimpse of Japanese cuisine from yaki soba (stir-fried noodles) to Kirin Beer, offered a few mismatched pieces of second hand goods and some museum goodies (parasols and pottery), which I will be going back to buy.

by Cate

But it wasn’t only the cultural aspect that attracted the crowds. Around the pristine lake with its flora and fauna pruned and sheared to perfection sat hoards of camera holding spectators waiting under the sun, waiting for the light to end,waiting for the lanterns and fireworks.

by Cate

Since I had seen the real thing in Japan on numerous occasions and enjoyed the events at Morikami Gardens during the daylight hours, the thought of sitting it out for the lanterns didn’t grab me. With the sweat building up, the gnat-type-flying-things intensifying all I wanted to do was cool down. Thankfully Joe initiated the idea of leaving early.

Perhaps next Bon I will wait it out for the lanterns and fireworks, I’m glad hundreds of others were enlightened enough to know the virtues of being patient. I know mine is a work in progress.

Next post will be on the Taiko drums. Stay tuned.

Caffeinated Traveller

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3 Comments
  1. August 18, 2010 9:03 pm

    How beautiful. We have several Japanese fests in Chicago but I’ve never experienced Bon. I’m not surprised the corwd was patient, in my observations, people drawn to cultural celebrations are typically more respectful than they’s be at one of their own, more familiar events.

  2. August 19, 2010 1:19 pm

    True, I think people make more of an effort which shows that we can be well behaved even in mobs. I did feel a mob mentality in a Japanese festival which had nothing to do with Bon. It was another event, the crowd weren’t angry but become extremely excited — just as frightening I think.

  3. September 3, 2010 8:23 am

    I have never been to Japan or seen a Bon festival. But I couldn’t help thinking of the movie, The Karate Kid II, when I read this. There’s a scene when Mr. Miyagi and the local community release lanterns into the water. I remember thinking this was beautiful, so I can only imagine how amazing it must have been to see Bon in person.

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