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Honouring Our Ancestors
In the midst of summer, families in Japan come together to honour their ancestors. They arrive at cemeteries to clean graves and sweep away debris, they leave gifts of fresh flowers and incense - even packs of cigarettes and bottles of sake or their beloved’s favourite beer - before preparing for the remaining Obon rituals, which have largely remained unchanged to this day.

High on a hill overlooking the city of Kyoto is a sea of gravestones in one of the city’s largest cemeteries. Steep steps lead to the dead. Steps that are ascended by thousands during the Obon festival, which in Kyoto takes place in August, over the hottest days of the humid summer.

Families gather their living, women clinging to babies-in-arms and grey-haired men stooped over in the summer sun, collect buckets and brushes and make their way to their relative’s headstones. Temperatures regularly reach 40C, yet still the crowds come to visit the souls of lost loved ones, who return home to the living, guided by the sweet smell of flora and a torrent of perfumed smoke, rising from candles and incense.

During the three day festival, which has routes in the Buddhist faith, people return to their ancestral homes, revisiting household altars, where they too leave offerings for their family spirits and prayers for their safekeeping in the next life. Meals are prepared and welcoming fires made from hemp reed, known as ogara, are set, the smoke guiding the spirits across the border between our two worlds.

When it is time for the fallen to once again retire, fires and chochin (paper lanterns) are lit to guide the souls back, and Bon Odori dances are performed in honour of the dead. A bittersweet celebration, but one that continues to nourish the bond between living and lost.

Paying respects at a loved one's grave
The approach to the cemetary
Families arrive at gravestones
Laying gifts at a loved one's gravestone
Cleaning begins
Cleaning the grave
Gifts of beer left at a loved one's grave
Nachi no Ogi, part of the Obon celebrations in Japan. Image courtesy of ©JNTO
Awa Odori, part of the Obon celebrations in Japan. Image courtesy of ©JNTO
Nachi no Ogi, part of the Obon celebrations in Japan. Image courtesy of ©JNTO
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Rachel E T Davies
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Rachel E T Davies