There is a way in which the Japanese connect deeply with their ancestors. The Obon season is held in August, and the spirits of the ancestors are invited to spend some time in the family house, during which the family honors them with prayers and offerings, before sending them off to the afterlife again.
This is a Buddhist tradition of no equivalent in the Western culture, and it marks a unique seal on Japan. It is a time to be embraced with joy, rather than sadness, and it’s celebrated with varying customs throughout the country.
A Time for Family
The Obon Season is such a big event in Japan, that usually the Japanese enjoy of several days of vacation, and take advantage of this to travel to their family’s home so as to participate in the Obon. Even though the Obon celebration is a private event for each family, there are group activities like the traditional dance Bon Odori, in which the rhythm of the music is set by wa-taiko – Japanese drums.
A Summer Event
The Obon season is part of the summer celebrations in Japan, and thus its components are marked with the summer culture. For most formal events, the Japanese wear a Yukata, which is a light summer kimono.
The food is also cooling, refreshing, and typical of Japan’s summer, with both the offerings and the food Japanese eat consisting of unagi (eel), watermelon, pears, and cantaloupes. However, two vegetables stand above the rest during Obon because of their significance and use, and these are cucumbers and eggplants.
An Eggplant Cow… And a Cucumber Horse!
Imagine transforming two iconic refreshing vegetables into vehicles for our ancestors. Can you think how the Japanese may turn a simple eggplant into a cow and a cucumber into a horse?
Simply by sticking chopsticks as legs! In this video: you can see how the eggplants and cucumbers turn into vehicles for the spirits of our ancestors!
It is said that a cucumber horse – shoryo-uma – will not only ward off evil but also will serve as a fast vehicle to guide our ancestors home. Meanwhile, the eggplant cow is used to send them back to the afterlife because it is slower and bigger so they can carry back the offerings we honored them with, and also enjoy some sightseeing in their journey back.
These vegetable vehicles are such a vital part of the Japanese culture that they were added in Japan’s version of Nintendo’s popular game “Animal Crossing” as DLCs.
How we Use the Vegetable Animals in Obon
August the 13th marks the first day of Obon, during which the cucumber horse (and sometimes the eggplant cow) are placed on the family’s doorstep with some incense so that their ancestor’s spirits can ride them home. The incense will leave a trail of smoke that will later serve them as a guide back to the afterlife.
Each family home usually sets an altar for their ancestors, carefully decorated and filled with offerings, this altar is the main means of honoring those who have passed. Both the eggplant cow and the cucumber horse are generally placed on the altar after the first day of Obon, as a part of the offerings.
The last day of Obon, August the 16th, both eggplant cow and cucumber horse are left in a river bank so that the ancestors can ride them back to the spirit world.