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Obon, the unofficial summer holiday

The Obon Tradition

Obon (お盆 or おぼん) or just Bon (盆 or ぼん) is observed as a religious holiday in Japan every August. The actual term ‘Obon’ refers to the Japanese Buddhist custom of paying respect to the spirits of their ancestors. The holiday period has developed into more of a traditional or customary holiday where family members gather to pay respect to the tombstones of passed relatives. The tradition dates back some 500 years or more and is closely associated with the Bon-Odori (盆踊り or ぼんおどり), a traditional dance closely connected to the Bon custom.

Dancing the night away

The Bon-Odori or Bon dance as it is commonly known, was traditionally a series of movements to welcome the spirits of the dead. This has now evolved into a famous and widely recognised celebration that varies in many aspects across different regions. The dance itself and music used in accompaniment will vary from area to area, for example the ‘Tokyo-Ondo’ song is used in Japan’s capital city, while in Gifu prefecture ‘Gujo Odori’ in Gujo is a dance that lasts the entire night. The city of Tokushima located in Shikoku is also notorious for its ‘Awa Odori’, and in the southernmost part of Kyushu island you can find the “Ohara Bushi” in Kagoshima.

The dance is typically composed of dancers, singers and musicians. Dancers will encircle a high wooden scaffold made specifically for the festival, known as a ‘Yagura’ (櫓 or 矢倉). This stand also acts as the stage for the musicians and singers of the ensemble during the dance. Dancers will usually move either clockwise or anti-clockwise, again depending on the region as this varies from place to place.

The timing of the festival also coincides with the Japanese summer, and is among several other festivals celebrated during this season. Lanterns will line the streets, temples and shrines, ‘yatai’ (屋台 or やたい) Japanese food stands will be in abundance offering a variety of Japanese cuisine. Furthermore, you will no doubt see many of the locals wearing traditional Yukata (Japanese summer kimono) garments in celebration of the hotter months.

Summer Holidays!

Generally speaking, Japanese companies observe this as a customary holiday, and an opportunity for staff to take time off work. In Tokyo, this tends to be around the 15th of August, but this varies across companies and regions, with some able to take several days leave, while others may only be eligible for a few or none at all.  This is also the usual timing for employees in Japanese companies to take their annual (paid) holidays, although again this can vary across company regarding how many days you could (score) get off.

From my observations, international companies generally do not recognise this as a holiday for their employees. Additionally, as it is not considered a national holiday, it is at the company’s discretion about how lucky you are. Although, one thing you do notice is the oversupply of seats on trains during morning rush hour. At least, you should be able to avoid getting shoulder charged by one angry or impatient public transport patron during this time 😉

Other companies, especially in the tourist or travel game are also not immune. As this is a time when many of the Japanese will no doubt use their leave to travel either across the country or overseas, to enjoy what time they have.

In contrast the next holiday season in September, Silver Week is three consecutive national holidays, which are observed by most companies. Like Golden Week, this is also a very busy period of the year when many will be traveling or journeying out to one of the many attractions Tokyo and greater Japan has to offer. However, due to the timing of these days and the crossover with weekends, again you may not always be able to receive a full 5-day holiday.

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