At the edge of the horizon

At the edge of the horizon
At the edge of Japan

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Obon in Okinawa: Returning the Ancestors to Heaven (Part II)

I went to my co-worker's house for the third day of Obon, which is the day when families gather to eat a large traditional meal, give thanks, and then pray for their ancestors' safe return to the other world.  Last year I was merely an observer at a large gathering.  Each individual household practices Obon a bit differently, just as each individual household does with Thanksgiving or Christmas or birthdays.  There is a collective understanding to the ritual, but every family will hold it a bit differently.  This year I felt like I was on a homestay in a Japanese house, which then prompted me to wish I were doing a homestay in a Japanese house because I think I would learn so much more about Japanese culture and my speaking skills would increase exponentially.  Alas, that's not the life I live in Okinawa, but I still love my life nevertheless and am glad I had the opportunity to meet new people and experience Obon firsthand.

The altar was for two sets of relatives related to my co-worker's husbands family.
One set was for his grandparents who both died during the Battle of Okinawa
the other were for his parents.

The event is basically a bit like an American Thanksgiving, except to reduce it solely to that is to deny the presence of the spiritual element and ancestor worship. But there are some parallels.  I finally learned what it means to receive the Obaasan kame-kame attack, in which you the guest are fed increasing amounts of delicious food until you feel like Violet Beauregarde from Charley and the Chocolate Factory.  I found a way around that though by just sampling everything that was placed in front of me instead of attempting to finish any of it.  The food was specially made for me because I can't eat most Japanese food if it's prepared with soy sauce or wheat.  So I was really grateful that my co-worker went out of her way to allow me to try all of these traditional foods that I normally have to just look at instead of tasting.  

Most of the evening was spent chatting with the men, because the women were in the kitchen doing all of the work.  I wanted to help them, but they told me to sit since I was a guest.  Later on my co-worker said, probably prompted by the wine we were all drinking, that she and everyone at my school think I'm a 大和撫子.  I think it was meant as a compliment, but I am uncertain since it's kind of impossible for me to be that.

Typical Obon food in Okinawa:
Tofu, pork, kombu maki, gobo, shikawasa, shrimp tempura
and soki jiru (soup with pork spare rib with kombu and daikon).
When the women finally sat down, we enjoyed chatting about Okinawan vs. Yamato Japanese culture, especially relating to Obon, since they are very different from each other.  Okinawa's Obon is more traditional and family-oriented and its connections to traditional Chinese culture are evident, especially in the layout and size of the butsudan (the altar).  The family's altar reminded me of the altars I saw in Vietnam when I lived there.  Like many Okinawan families, some of the members of the family had married people from mainland, so the family was part Okinawan-part Yamato.  I asked one of the women who was from Yokohama how Obon is celebrated in mainland Japan and she mentioned that the altar is much smaller, that the event is very low key and that instead of the use of a sugar cane walking stick that the ancestors are offered to help get back to heaven, the families in mainland Japan build (or buy) a small replica of a horse made of fruits and vegetables that they use to ride to heaven.  She also said that the family will go to the tombstone of the deceased family member and that there will be fireworks.  She lives in Okinawa now and she also mentioned that Okinawa's rituals are quite different from the culture she grew up in, especially in relation to ancestors and ancestor worship.  She said the Okinawan ritual of Shimi, which happens in the spring, isn't something that mainland Japanese do and she was surprised and intrigued by it when she married into an Okinawan family.  Ancestor worship is much more prominent in Okinawa than it is in mainland Japan.

Sato-kibi: Sugar cane walking stick
I really enjoyed the conversations I had that night with the family over wine and a tiny shot of fermented awamori ("the good stuff") and the smorgasbord of food prepared.  It was such a lovely memory to be able to share with this Okinawan family who allowed me to come in to experience a part of the culture here that I don't often get the chance to experience.  It made me miss my own family though.

It's nice to feel "内" rather than "外" sometimes.

Burning special money for ancestors to use in heaven
At the end of the evening:
Placing the walking stick at the front door
Moving all of the food from the altar
to the front porch area
Offering final gifts before saying goodbye to the ancestors until next time.


  1. I enjoyed reading your post. What happens to the food at the altar after a few days? Do they eat it or throw it away?

  2. Thanks! I'm happy to get your comment. The food is parceled out to everyone at the party and eaten as leftovers (including the fruit). Nothing gets thrown away.