Lanterns, light… Reflections on the Traditional Japanese Bon Festival

Imagine evening illuminated with the soft glow of light emanating from paper lanterns, their light reflected on smooth waters. This is exactly what hundreds of revelers saw last night at the Forest Hills Lantern Festival.  As author Meg Muckenhoupt shared yesterday, last night marked the 13th Annual Lantern Festival, an evening inspired by the Japanese Obon (or Bon) Festival.

But what, exactly, is a Bon Festival and how was it celebrated in Jamaica Plain? Fortunately for me, I have a Japanese friend who was able to fill me in about the traditional events held in Japan.  The Bon Festival generally takes place around August 15 and lasts about three days. It is a holiday in which people are traditionally given leave from work, as the Bon Festival is a time meant for families to visit their ancestral home, clean graves, and pay tribute to ancestors. The Bon Festival has many matsuri (festivals) taking place throughout Japan, with each prefecture having slight differences.

Generally, however, each matsuri takes place within a park or public space. Often dressed in yukata (light cotton kimonos), people gather to watch Bon-Odori (Bon dance). Alongside the dances are also yatai (booths), food, games, haunted houses, and rides. The Bon Festival can take place during the day, but it is primarily a nocturnal event with firework displays set off during the night. In Kyoto, a large bonfire in the shape of “Dai,” the Chinese symbol for “big” is lit. On the final night of the Bon Festival is Toro Nagashi, or floating of lanterns, the tradition the Forest Hills Lantern Festival draws inspiration from. However, depending on the area of Japan, instead of illuminated lanterns, candles and plastic light bulbs shaped as candles have been floated down the river.

While the Forest Hills Lantern Festival is an event that draws inspiration from the Bon Festival, it is important to realize that the festival at Forest Hills is a tradition interpreted through American eyes and customs. The adopted festival featured not only Japanese performances such as traditional Japanese dance from Showa Boston and Taiko drumming from Grand Master Tsuji, but also performances from other cultures such as Irish music from Whiskey boys and Chinese dragon dance from Gund Kwok. America is a great mosaic of culture, and Massachusetts adopting this tradition demonstrates an open-mindedness to and awareness of Japanese culture. The integration of performances from different nations, likewise, exemplifies America’s generosity to other cultures and America’s diversity.

Obon Lanterns in Japan, Photo by

The Forest Hills Lantern Festival is a yearly tradition. If you weren’t able to attend last night, make sure to check it out next year. For more information, visit Explore, see more cultures, experience what Massachusetts has to offer from places beyond.

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