In my mind, O-bon is similar to a the all saints’, all souls’, Halloween triumvirate (without the costumes or trick or treating, of course). It’s a time when the spirits of passed relatives are called home, honored, then ushered back to their afterlife. The first O-bon following a person’s death is called “hatsu-bon” (hatsu meaning ‘first’).

This was my mother-in-law’s hatsu-bon. She died in early December, and when given a choice of the entire family making the trip for a somber funeral or the more celebratory O-bon, we opted for O-bon. Grandma Sato played a huge role in our lives–when Things 1 and 2 were younger, she’d come and stay with us for months at a time. This was not always excellent for me (more than once i joked about dropping a dime to INS, now Homeland Security, when the end of her visa stay was in sight) but it was for the kids. Grandma Sato was that grandma who could sit and play Legos or blocks or fold origami for hours on end without ever losing patience and while also putting a full dinner on the table within a reasonable hour.

Anyway, aside from the falling out with the SIL, grandma Sato’s O-bon was a success. When we arrived in the Mister’s hometown, we visited the Sato family matriarch for some brooms, which we then took down to the shore and lit on fire and then waved them around to summon the spirit of Grandma S.

(Thing 1 and the family matriarch, Toyo-obachan)

(Thing 1 with my nephew Kosuke–he’s 3 and adorable)

(Thing 3 with her flaming broom)

Meanwhile visitors came to pay their respects at the shrine set up at Grandma’s house.


This kept the adults busy, leaving the Things to their own devices (Nintendo being the device of choice). Yes, I dressed the Things in summer yukata. I thought more people would be wearing them (as is typical at other O-bon ceremonies I’ve been to), but nope. They were ok with that, though. Yukata are cool, and the day was wicked hot.


The huge lanterns (which are hung from the ceiling) are sent from neighbors and relatives. Later they get moved to the cemetery. While this was Grandma S’s hatsu-bon, we still also called for the spirits of the Mister’s father and sister. (Yes, lots of premature death in the Mister’s family–o-bon always makes me count my blessings).

The next day, the lanterns are brought to the family grave and hoisted onto bamboo tiers.




I loved this part of the day. So many relatives were present–from both sides of Grandma S’s family.

Back at the house, the boat was being prepared:


After the lanterns are hung at the shrine, they’re brought home and some are then hung on the boat. The boat is then brought to the sea (or river, for inland towns) and set afloat. What’s special about O-bon in Nagasaki is the size of the boats. Most communities use much smaller vessels.


The lanterns are lit and it makes such a striking scene to see all the floating boats in the water. I don’t have photos of this as my SIL was still pretty pissed off at me so I stayed behind at the house while the contingent went off to the shore to do this. I think years ago the boats were left to float off without any oversight. Now, ever environmentally concerned, there’s a larger, manned boat that actually hauls in the other boats so as not to pollute the sea.

All said, it was a fantastic way for us to say good-bye to Grandma Sato. She is sorely missed.


  1. Thanks for this post. I had an opportunity to attend an O-Bon while in Hawaii a few years ago. I may not remember or maybe didn’t pick up on the finer points of the ceremony, but what I remembered most was the dance that was done in a circle. I do remember that I was told that various cities and regions have a particular step that is done. There was wonderful food and much community involvement.

  2. Oh … that was lovely indeed to celebrate Grandma S … and your explanation of the O-bon fest. I never knew. (I attended on sort of impulsively here in the Portland area one year … I never knew what it was about … your explanation helps. You mentioned the dancing in a circle … that is what I recall … and recall a grand time at it even if I did not know the words to anything or why I was doing it. I wrote a blog about it too!)

    I love the sight of the lanterns all hung …and that one with your son and nephew…that one is really cute.

    • Lots of towns have larger O-bon festivals and the dancing is always the highlight (oh, that and the fireworks). Some towns in the US do o-bon, too, like Portand and I think Japan-town in LA.

    • We work so hard to incorporate Japan in our daily lives though that the Things get confused when tell them that the streusel recipe is a family hand-me-down from my German grandmother. Balance…it can be so tricky!

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