Sunday 13 August 2017

Obon Holidays and Soul-Carrying Animals

Friday was Mountain Day (yama no hi =山の日), a new national holiday in Japan which started only last year. Coming just before the traditional Obon (お盆) summer break (August 13th-15th this year), many Japanese took the opportunity for a holiday: Friday was the peak day for passengers leaving Japan at airports throughout the country, with Wednesday the expected peak return day. Other Japanese will go back to the their home-town (furusato =古里・故郷) during this period, with a similar travel rush (kisei rasshu =帰省ラッシュ) at train stations in the big cities. An interesting language feature is the description of trains leaving the capital as kudari-ressha (下り列車) - literally "down trains" since the capital is figuratively higher than other towns and cities.

As mentioned in a previous post, Obon is a time to honour the spirits of one's ancestors who are said to return to their earthly homes for a brief visit during this period. The picture shows some vegetable animals with wooden chopsticks for legs commonly made by children and found on the street during Obon. The cucumber "horses" (shōryōuma =精霊馬) are said to bring the dead back home quickly while the slow-moving aubergine/eggplant "oxen" (shōryōushi =精霊牛) take their time helping them back. More information, including how to make your own can be seen here. For a modern take on this old tradition see here.

For many Japanese, Obon is one of only three annual holidays when they are guaranteed time-off - the other two being Golden Week (ゴールデン・ウィーク) at the end of April/beginning of May and New Year (shōgatsu =正月). During these periods, aside from the service industries almost all businesses will shut down. For example, the other day, we rang one company about getting our oven fixed and they told us to ring back on the 21st! This may be an extreme case though: for the most part, taking more than a week off is frowned upon and for many families a four or five day trip abroad is about as good as it gets. Needless to say, ticket and hotel prices during these three holiday periods are sky-high: yet, Hawaii and Guam will be chock-a-block full of Japanese tourists during these times. School-kids also have their "core vacation" around Obon. Even though the school holiday officially runs for six weeks from around July 20th to the end of August, for much of that time not a few students will still be attending school for supplementary classes and club activities! Of course, for those students applying for entry to university or high school - known as jukensei (受験生) - there is no vacation at all: just 10-12 hours daily study and 5-6 hours sleep a night! Sounds like they might need a KitKat...