The Japanese have long respected their elders who are held in high esteem for their wisdom. They bestow many honors upon them both before and after death. Okinawans return to their family homes for obon, some of them traveling thousands of miles. The highways are jammed; air and sea routes are backlogged. Three days later the highways, airports, and ship ports overflow once more as the travelers make their return trips.
The family home is identified by the family tomb and the ihai, or ancestral mortuary name tablet. This home is usually presided over by the oldest male family member.
Obon was first celebrated during the Middle Ages and on Okinawa, it is celebrated according to the lunar calendar. Ever since those times, Okinawans have followed tradition and prayed, eaten, sung and danced with the spirits of their ancestors during this annual event. The spirits are alerted of the arrival of obon by the cleaning of the tomb several days before the event begins. Family members get together at the tomb to clean it which lets the ancestors know they will soon be called forth to rejoin their family for a short visit.
Obon begins with unkeh, when the family welcomes the spirits of the tomb into the house where the butsudan or alter has been prepared and holds the ihai. On this first evening of obon, lanterns or candles are lit to lead the spirits to the home. As soon as darkness falls, family members stand at the front of the house to greet the spirits. Dinner that night will be a porridge-like dish called jushi. The family eats this and offers it to the dead.
Food, drinks and other offerings are placed in the butsudan to welcome the ancestors. Sake, fruit, tea, water and flowers are among these offerings. On one side of the butsudan a bundle of 13 short pieces of sugar cane and a long, uncut cane are also offered. The long piece is used as a walking stick by the spirits as they leave the house and return to their tomb.
On the second day of Obon, nakabi, ancestors are offered three meals. Family members spend the day visiting with relatives and apologizing to the ancestors for not communicating with them in so long. They pray for forgiveness and protection and offer gifts to the spirits. In the past offerings were usually tea and tobacco, but more recently daily necessities have been given.
Ukui is the third and final day of Obon. After a sumptuous farewell dinner, the spirits must return to their tomb. This meal is the high point of the entire celebration and is carefully prepared and placed in a special box called a jyubako. The jyubako will be placed before the ihai or butsudan along with sake, tea and other special foods. While cooking the many delicacies of this fabulous meal, the housewives also prepare the minnuku. The minnuku is a special meal made up of scraps of food or grass. It is carried by the family members who escort their ancestors back to the tombs to be given to any bad spirits or homeless floating spirits who might be met on the trip.
Uchikabi or money made of paper and stamped with the shape of a coin by a hammer and iron mold is placed on the jyubako to ensure that the ancestors will have no needs as they return to the other world. Most offerings are made in pairs or in a package. Countable foods are always given in odd numbers.
When everything is arranged for the feast, family members gather in front of the butsudan and incense is burned. The family gives thanks for their good health and prays for the safety, happiness and prosperity of the family in the year to come.
After the meal, men sing and play the samisen, which is similar to a banjo and made of snakeskin. Just before midnight the ancestral spirits are sent off. The paper money is burned by the head of the family and his sons. They pour sake and tea on the ashes then carry souvenir foods and the minnuku to the gate and place them on the ground. They pray so the spirits can return to the tomb safely and come back again the next year. This prayer marks the end of Obon and the beginning of the Obon dance or Eisa.
Eisa is performed to please and console the ancestors and dispel any bad spirits.
[Obon Festival -- Living and Dying in Buddhism] .pdf file
[Keep Reading and see Video briefs of 1988 Eisa Festival]