Bon-odori: dancing for the spirits

Bon odori drummer
Bon odori drummer on tower

Despite its association with the dead, O-Bon is nonetheless a colourful occasion, especially on the evening the bon odori or memorial dances are performed. Surrounded by a selection of stalls offering games, handicrafts and food, and festooned with the lanterns used to summon the dead, a temporary wooden tower is erected in the town square or temple, the whole scene creating a carnival-like atmosphere.

In the traditional dances carried out in a circle around the tower, each movement has a special significance, in some cases related—like the Panjabi folk dance, the bhangra—to such agricultural activities as digging and threshing wheat. Accompanied by a drummer, these simple rhythmic dances are performed by dancers wearing kimonos, both sound and action said to be soothing to the spirits.

floating lanterns
toro nagashi lanterns

At the end of O-Bon, floating lanterns are put into rivers, lakes and seas during the toro nagashi ritual in order to guide the spirits back into their world; small farewell bonfires (okuribi) may also be lit.

At some time in the past, these individual farewells grew into spectacular collective events. For example, the famous Daimonji Okuribi ceremony which takes place on the slopes of the five mountains surrounding the old imperial capital at Kyoto.

Daimonji Okuribi
(Chinese character dai)

Columns of torchbearers light bonfires outlining the shapes of five colossal figures, all of which have symbolic significance. The first is the Chinese character dai, which means ‘great’ and symbolises the universe. This is followed by the characters myo, ‘mystic’, or ‘miracle’ and ho, ‘doctrine’ or ‘law’. The ceremony ends with a fire in the shape of a ship (symbolising the boats bearing the souls of the dead to the shores of the otherworld) and then one in the shape of a Shinto archway (torii).

For a few brief moments these massive, crackling configurations flare into the night. And then observers bid farewell to the departing souls until the return of the next O-Bon season.

Nora Leonard, July 2004