Bon Festival – A Japanese Tradition

Bon Festival Lanterns

Every August, the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens, hosts a one day event called the Bon Festival.  This festival celebrates the Japanese custom of Obon, which is a Buddhist tradition to honor the spirits of our ancestors.  It is believed that during the three-day span of Obon, the ancestors’ spirits return to visit their relatives still on this earth.  At the Morikami Museum, guests are invited to take part in the age-old tradition of honoring and commemorating their loved ones who have passed.

Waiting out the Rain

Unfortunately, this year on the day of the Bon Festival, the Morikami Museum encountered a very intense thunderstorm which left much of the festival grounds flooded.  At one point lightning and thunder struck so close that it almost gave everyone a heart attack.  The storm ended up delaying the opening of the festival, but the Morikami did a great job cleaning the grounds and getting the event up and running as quickly as they could.  Since Micah was photographing the event, we arrived before the gates opened and ended up waiting out the storm with the rest of the vendors, performers, volunteers and staff.  The staff and volunteers worked so hard to make the festival a success, and even with the snafu and all things considering, I think the event turned out great.

Bon Festival Grounds

Kimono Demonstration

The main highlights of the festival are the Taiiko Drum Performance, Bon Odori Dances, Ennichi Street Fair, Floating Lanterns and Fireworks.  The Taiko drummers are amazing and put on such an incredible performance.  By watching just one performance you can tell that all the drummers are passionate about the craft and truly enjoy playing–their energy and excitement radiates from the stage.  After watching their performance this year, I am disappointed we didn’t get a chance to catch the show last year, when we were at the festival.  I would definitely recommend watching at least one of their performances, as each performance varies.

The traditional dancers were fun to watch as well–the Bon Odori Dance is a style of dance that is performed to entertain the spirits that are visiting.  Dressed in traditional garb, the women dance around a platform to the sound of drums and flutes.  Each performance is a little different, and some even encourage audience participation.

The Ennichi Street Fair includes shops that sell items such as bonsai, spices and treats, festival games for children and many food stands as well as a saké station and beer garden.  The Morikami’s Cornell Cafe, serves an a-la-carte menu during the festival, and the street fair vendors sell a variety of Pan-Asian and All-American foods such as vegetable tempura, soba noodles and chicken yakitori, just to name a few.


Ennichi Street Fair

Japanese Candy

Japanese Candy

Festival Food

Sake Station

Cornell Cafe

Another tradition during Oban is to set up a food offering for the spirits as they pass through.  Various fruits and vegetables as well as other food items, are set up on families alters and temples.  Each year, the Morikami sets up a special display for Mr. George Morikami, pictured below.


My favorite part of the evening is the lantern floating–watching all the lanterns float in the lake is a peaceful and special experience knowing that every lantern displays a message to somebody’s loved one.  If you want to send a message in a traditional Japanese way, to those who have passed, you can purchase either a lantern sleeve that gets placed over a candlelit lantern or a Tanzaku slip that gets placed on the Shoryobune boat.  The lanterns are lit with candles and are then released to float out on the water–the illuminated lanterns are said to guide the ancestors’ spirits back to the outerworld with “farewell fires”.  Similar to the lanterns, the Shoryobune boat is illuminated to guide the spirits, but the boat is lit with flames instead of a candle, just before being released into the lake.  New this year, the Morikami also created a social media lantern–for those unable to make it, a Tweet or Facebook message could be sent to the Morikami and the message would then be included on the social media lantern.  My grandpa passed away last winter, so in memory of him, I decided to write a note on a Tanzaku slip for the Shoryobune boat.  He was one of the most influential people in my life, such an amazing, wise, caring and selfless person, and I strive to be more like him everyday, so this was another nice way to remember him and all he has done for me.

Writing messages on the lanterns


Setting up the lanterns

Lighting the lanterns


Social Media Lantern

Launching the shoryobune

Shoryobune in flames

Watching the lanterns, fireworks and performances, all in a traditional Japanese fashion, is a great way to spend an evening and honor your ancestors in the process.  I would love to travel to Japan one day to catch the festival in action!


Disclaimer: We received complementary admission because Micah photographed the event, but all opinions and ideas are my own.