Now I know why I was having dreams of my late sister, mother and father so much recently. It was Obon time in Japan, the Buddhist holiday equivalent of Halloween in the United States or Day of the Dead in Mexico.
It’s believed that each year during Obon, the spirits of ancestors return to this world in order to visit their relatives, who clean their graves, hold dances and pay their respects in their memory.
It was a national holiday and many people took off more time to travel and be with family.
Considering my father passed this June 24 and I have also lost my youngest sister and mother in addition to other loved ones, it was special to participate in the To-Kae lantern festival in Nara during Obon.
The festival ran for 10 consecutive nights August 5-10 around Nara Park, helping visitors to heal and feel warm. From walking among ancient stone lanterns or new paper lanterns by the thousands with tiny lights piercing the velvet black sky, it was one of the loveliest events I’ve ever experienced in my life. It was also a profound way to grieve and transform to healing by participating in the beautiful rituals among nature, community and historic monuments.
Obon is observed from the 13th to the 15th day of the 7th month of the year, which is July according to the solar calendar. However, since the 7th month of the year roughly coincides with August rather than July according to the formerly used lunar calendar, Obon is still observed in mid August in many regions of Japan, while it is observed in mid July in other regions. That’s about when the dreams of my late family began happening!
It took us less than an hour on the JR rapid train service to get from Osaka to Nara Monday night. Emerging from Nara station, we then strolled among the throngs of crowds dressed in gorgeous kimonos, men, women and children alike, as the wooden sound of their geta shoes trotted across the stone pathways around Nara Park to enjoy the lights.
It’s uniquely dark in Nara, not light-polluted like a lot of cities, so the feeling is sacred and profound as we walked among approximately 20,000 candles that were lit up by participants and volunteers.
At the To-kae festival it’s the season of fire, and not just because of the intense summer heat. Guests are invited to participate via ikyaku ittou – one person, one light.
Guests light their own lantern, place it on the festival grounds and cast a wish upon that lantern. People lit their own candle or lantern they received for a donation of 500 ¥ that is used to pay for next year’s candles.
Ritual is important to connect us to help us escape ordinary time into sacred time and be connected to the cosmos and renewal. Many ritual ceremonies with the use of candle flames and fire date back to ancient times, with ancient people believing that they could look deeply into their hearts through fire and pray to the deities. Today the spirit in flame represents a wish for world peace and well-being. Over 900,000 people join in the event every year.
The word, toka in Tokae means “light flower” (to – light or candle, ka – flower) because the shape of the hollow around the burning wick and a candle’s melted remains are said to resemble a flower. The more that hollow and candle’s remains resemble a flower the luckier the lantern is and the more likely the lighter’s wish is to be granted. The word é means a meeting or a gathering. The Tokae, a gathering of fire flowers, could be seen as of the same spirit as the gatherings of families and friends at Obon to celebrate and appreciate the holiday and their history.
Nara Park is one of my favorite places in Japan, with the gentle ubiquitous deer that used to be perceived as divine.
But it’s also surrounded by magnificent nature, primeval forest and World Heritage sites that were lit up, such as Todaiji Temple, Kofukuji Temple and Kasuga Taisha Shrine. A truly sacred place.
About 3,000 lanterns in the precinct of Kasuga Taisha Shinto Shrine have been offered over the centuries by a variety of worshippers, including aristocrats, samurai warriors and the general public, which include stone lanterns along the path to the shrines and hanging lanterns along the inner corridors with vermillion-lacquered columns.
Lanterns are believed to guide souls back to their families, and indeed, walking among them I felt the presence of my loved ones who have passed on, including my grandfather, who died a POW in Japan during World War II. I believe in the retroactive healing of the ancestors, and the process of ritual such as these to grieve and remember are part of that healing for ourselves and them. That is the way to peace inner and outer. For unresolved grief can lead to anger and violence. Something our world really needs today to heal!
When we approached the Kasuga Taisha Shinto Shrine, priests and miko,shrine maidens, were giving out candle-lit paper lanterns, chochin, for a 500 ¥ donation to light the dark pathways. People purified themselves with water at a deer guarded chozubachi, water-filled basin, with wooden dippers for purification rite known as temizu, or wrote their wishes on omamori for good luck or prayers. All participatory consciousness for grieving, healing and renewal.
“Chochin hana,” I heard the man behind me say as I stood in line to get a lantern. And I was so excited that I understood what he said! Heard it clear as a bell – lantern flower! My Japanese lessons are working! And what a beautiful word!
Strolling back we roamed in among people who had people paused joyfully to eat at one of the food stalls brimming with scents of curry and fresh bread, or dozens of other food scents, including choco-bananas, chocolate covered bananas, or sphere-shaped wata-gashi, wata-ame or candy floss, cotton candy to eat.
Returning home on the train back to Osaka exhausted, we had to stand up on the crowded train back, but it was worth it, because world was new again, my ancestors honored, and I had the pleasure of being with their spirits and memories one more time.
Which gave me great comfort in this world that can be so harsh at times.
My mind, heart, body and soul were much happier and healthier all because of this beautiful mindful event in Japan.