By Avi Landau
On the evening of August 13th families all over Japan went to cemeteries with paper lanterns to greet and guide their ancestral spirits back home for what is called the O-Bon Festival. During their short stay with their This-Worldly families, the ancestors will be wined and dined with various offerings, AND entertained as well. This has traditionally been done in the form of Bon Odori ( Bon Dances), in which men, women and children ( of all ages), usually dressed in YUKATA ( cotton kimonos), dance either in lines or in a circle ( depending on the area).
Having apparently first developed sometime during the Heian Period (794-1185), and later tranformed and popularized by Ippen Shonin (一遍上人), the founder of the Ji Sect of Buddhism (時宗) in the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), these dances ,which eventually came to be performed in various forms all over Japan, had until recently had a purely religious significance (expressing joy and thanks to the ancestral spirits).
Apparently in some parts of Japan, the Bon Odori events were also occassions for free physical intermingling between the sexes ( something which you can read about in the writings of novelist Mori Ogai, among others)
These days, however, if they have survived in a particular area at all, Bon Dances have often become major events and tourist attractions- in fact, Tokushima Prefecture`s Awa Odori Bon Dances ( in which thousands of costumed dancers parade through the streets) are probably what that prefecture is most famous for! See here: http://www.city.tokushima.tokushima.jp/english/awaodori.html
Even when they occur on a smaller scale these events can be lots of fun as community gatherings ( while in some areas, they still do retain plenty of solemnty and mystery).
In usual years in Tsukuba`s Hojo ( in the parking lot of the former Tsukuba City Office along Rt 125) there is a big Bon Dancing event in which this areas local dances are performed and taught (for everyone to join in!).
You should never expect TOO MUCH, however, from the lesser known Bon Odori events because it is said (or at least , I have read it somewhere) that though the Japanese traditionally DID want to entertain their ancestral spirits, they DID NOT want to entertain them TOO MUCH and make them want to overstay their welcomes!