Spirits and Street Food at Obon – The Japanese ‘Festival of Souls’
While living in Japan, my husband and I loved travelling around and going to the many festivals, or matsuri, celebrated in Japan throughout the year. One of our favourites is a Buddhist festival called Obon which can be translated as ‘Festival of Souls’. It’s similar in some ways to Halloween here in the West, however, it is celebrated for three days in either July or August; this year it takes place in August.
During Obon we got to experience the wonderful aspects of Japanese culture and food. Actually, this is where we got to taste some of the best street food in the world!
At Japanese festivals you can find food stalls lining the streets with popular street foods such as yakisoba (fried noodles), okonomiyaki (Japanese-style savoury pancake), takoyaki (octopus balls) and yakitori (chicken skewers).
Most people are particularly fascinated by takoyaki which is a mix of chopped octopus and a dashi flavoured batter. It is cooked on a special moulded pan and traditionally served with a tasty brown sauce and dried fish flakes called katsuobushi. Needless to say it is filled with umami!
Obon season is a busy time in Japan as Japanese people travel back to their hometowns. They believe that the souls of their ancestors will return home at this time so they place lanterns outside their houses to guide them home. They also visit their graves and offer food to them at house altars and temples. As part of the festival celebrations a beautiful type of Japanese dance is performed called Bon-Odori.
Obon festivals take place all over Japan and can vary by region. One of the most famous Obon festivals takes place in Kyoto called Daimonji Gozan Okuribi Fire Festival. At this festival five giant bonfires are lit on the surrounding mountains which circle the city. Obon festival is also popular around the world in countries such as Brazil, which is home to the largest Japanese community outside of Japan.
The Obon festival ends with a beautiful scene as floating lanterns are placed in rivers, lakes and seas to guide the spirits back to their world. If you are planning a visit to Japan, make sure to check what festivals take place at that time as it’s a fantastic way to experience Japanese culture and food.
Fiona teaches workshops, provides corporate classes on the art of Japanese cooking, provides consultancy to restaurants and the food industry and blogs about her Japanese food adventures on Fiona’s Japanese Cooking Blog.