Bon Odori in Bungotakada

Families in Japan recently gathered to celebrate Obon, a holiday honoring the spirits of dead ancestors. Grown children return to hometowns, generations reunite, and together they visit and tend to relatives’ graves. Some carry the spirits back home to household altars to spend a few days together, preparing meals for them (a fading tradition, I hear) as if they were alive and well.

During the Obon period, communities perform a Bon Odori, a dance that welcomes spirits of the dead. We visited a Bon Odori at a friend’s-friend’s temple in Bungotakada, a tiny town about a 50-minute drive from Nakatsu.

Death is scary, but one universal comfort is that so many people have already gone before us, and many more will come after. This communal continuity was captured so perfectly within the Bon Odori, where everyone from the elderly to young couples to indifferent teenagers joined in the centuries-old motions. The music was upbeat, and the vibe was relaxed and friendly. Some danced passionately; most danced lazily (it was really hot). We clueless expats were welcomed in and out of the circle at our leisure. No matter who came and went, the dance kept going. It held the same sense of comfort and inevitability as Thanksgiving turkey.

We weren’t just in it for ritual’s sake. Those who danced were given fans with numbers on them, and there was a huge raffle at the end of the evening. A priest announced the prizes, teasing a few tween boys who kept getting close calls on their numbers. We laughed, ate kakegori, and even won ¥3,000!

It all reminded me that remembrance can be more sweet than bitter. I hope I can join in the dance again next year.



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