Today marks the beginning of Obon, a celebration of ancestors and family. Oban is a Buddhist tradition which began over 500 years ago. During Oban people return to their family homes to visit and clean the graves of their ancestors.
Before Oban begins people clean their houses and altars in preparation. On the first day of Obon paper chochin lanterns are lit at the home altar, then carried to the graves of their ancestors to guide their way home. Fires may also be lit at the entrance to the house to guide the spirits. Homes are filled with the scent of incense.
Oban lasts for three days. During this time people gather with family and friends to eat, dance the Bon Odori, and enjoy summer treats like watermelon. The Bon Odori dance welcomes the spirits of the dead, and varies from location to location. Typically, however, dancers make a circle around a scaffold called a yagura where the musicians and singers sit.
In Kyoto, giant bonfires are also lit during the height of the Obon festival. The bonfires form giant characters that can be viewed from a distance. Known as the Gozan no Okuribi, or "Giant Words", characters formed by the fires light up the mountains surrounding Kyoto. Five bonfires are lit forming the words: Great wondrous Dharma, followed by an image of a boat. The character for great is then repeated followed by the shape of a shrine gate.
On the last night of Oban the ceremony of toro nagashi (floating lanterns) takes place. Paper lanterns inscribed with the family crest are lit by candles. These lanterns are carried to a river and let go to float to the ocean, guiding the spirit back to the other world.