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Thursday Snapshot: Celebrating Obon

An Obon tradition.

A few years ago we took a bicycle trip around Fukushima Prefecture and stopped in to visit a farmer friend there. She and her family graciously invited us to stay with them during the Obon season, and we enjoyed helping on the farm and getting to know them. It remains one of my fondest memories.

What was also very special was that she invited us to participate in a small ritual associated with the holiday. The Obon holiday marks a time when the spirits of the ancestors return to visit their family for three days. It is a very special time, and one of the few times of the year where people get a handful of days off from work in a row. Most people return to their ancestral homelands, and the trains, highways, and buses leaving from Tokyo are as full, I imagine, as the universe is of people streaming back to where they originally come from.

After chores and before dinner one night, we walked with our friend to the family cemetery at dusk to welcome the ancestors home.  She lit the candles inside the lanterns we held in front of us on small sticks, their paper shells glowing pink and blue and white, the irises painted on the outside glowing brightly. We swung them in a circular motion over the gravestones of her ancestors three times and said "Namu amida Dabutsu" ("I take refuge in Amida Buddha" is a rough translation.) with each swing.

We repeated this process at three different graves, and each time she explained to us who the person was, how long they lived, and often what we had seen on her farm that they had built or used. She also explained that one day her name would also be written on one of these stones when she died. It was, I thought, a beautiful way to remember the people who had come before, but also to remember who you were.

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