Obon: the Japanese Tradition of Visiting the Graves of Ancestors

Amélie Geeraert
Kokoro Media
Published in
5 min readFeb 16, 2024

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Every year, for a few days before and after August 15, trains and tourist resorts overflow with people. Not only are hotels and flights expensive, but they also become fully booked well ahead of time. For the Japanese, this period is the peak of summer vacation. But this period, called obon, is also much more.

Since ancient times, obon has been regarded as a period when the spirits of Japanese ancestors return from the afterlife to spend time with their families. For this reason, most people return to their hometown, thank their ancestors together with all their relatives, and hold a memorial service for them. Here is how the Japanese celebrate obon.

A Family Visit to the Cemetery

It is one of the customs of obon for all the relatives to share a meal while they’re all gathered together. People look forward to presenting their newborn baby, bringing and introducing their fiancé/fiancée, and seeing their grown children. Then they visit the family grave together.

Visiting graveyards to rest your ancestor’s soul is called ohakamairi in Japanese (haka meaning grave). It can be done anytime, but Japanese people will usually visit on the same day as the Buddhist memorial service or on the same day of the death of their ancestor.

Graves are not for one person only, but for many members of the family. Ancestors are believed to be enshrined in the graves, resting there. When they visit their graves, people pray for the rest of the souls of the deceased. They also talk to their ancestors, express their gratitude to them, and report to them about the latest news of the family.

Pouring Water on Graves and Other Customs

A visit to a grave starts by cleaning the grave. After washing and purifying your hands, you collect water in a pail and head to the grave. Pails can be rented free of charge. After joining your hands in prayer, you pour the water onto the tombstone a little bit at a time and carefully wash the tombstone.

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Amélie Geeraert
Kokoro Media

Living in Japan since 2011. I love interviewing inspiring people.