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Cultural Festivals Member Only Special Events

O-Bon, The Spirit Festival

O-Bon festival at Portland Japanese Garden, 2019. Photo by Jonathan Ley

Portland Japanese Garden members are invited to take part in O-Bon, the Spirit Festival, an important Buddhist festival to honor ancestors and pray for the souls of the departed.

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Join us during the magical hours of dusk in the Garden as we pay tribute to the memory of loved ones. O-Bon is both one of Portland Japanese Garden’s longest-held traditions and biggest events of the year. Reverend Zuigaku Kodachi, who proposed the idea of hosting the Spirit Festival to our organization in 1976, has introduced members of all religions and backgrounds to the Buddhist tradition of honoring the departed for close to half a century.

Reverend Zuigaku Kodachi chants the Lotus Sutra, Myohorengekyo, 2023. Photo by Portland Japanese Garden

At the Upper Pond, Rev. Kodachi chants the Lotus Sutra, or Myohorengekyo, in Japanese. Members mourn peacefully together as names of the recently departed are read. During toro nagashi, a ceremony of floating lanterns, members watch with quiet reverence as candles float in the Upper Pond near the Moon Bridge. The beautiful five-story Sapporo Pagoda Lantern in our Strolling Pond Garden and other lanterns throughout our landscape are lit to help the spirits find their way home. 

This event is available exclusively to members of Portland Japanese Garden. For those who are unable to join in-person, we will be livestreaming this event on our Instagram. To learn when this livestream will place, please reference our weekly newsletter.

2023 O-Bon Photo by Portland Japanese Garden.

About O-Bon

O-Bon is a Buddhist festival for commemorating ones’ ancestors, which dates back more than 1,300 years. Traditionally, the spirits of the ancestors are believed to temporarily return to this world to reunite with their relatives during O-Bon. Other than New Year’s Day, O-Bon is the other most important holiday in Japan. 

Throughout Japan, Buddhist services are held at temples and homes from August 13-15 to pray for one’s ancestors, particularly those who have died within the past year. This serves as a reminder of the importance of family ties, as a gesture of respect for those who have gone before, and as an acknowledgment of the brevity and preciousness of life as a family.

Candles, lanterns, and other fires are lit to guide the spirits back to the heavens. Toro-nagashi, a ceremony of floating lanterns, is celebrated in many regions on the last night of O-Bon. Floating paper lanterns are lit with candles and released into a river or the sea to guide the ancestral spirits back to the spirit world.

Families also visit the cemetery to clean the graves of relatives and pay their respects by offering flowers and burning incense. Also, people clean their homes and offer a variety of foods to the spirits of their ancestors in front of their butsudan (family altar), decorated with flowers and paper lanterns.