Celebrating Obon in Matsushima

When I discovered that Tony and I had unwittingly booked the start of our Japan trip to coincide with the Japanese summer festival known as Obon, I made it my mission to ensure that we would get to witness at least one Obon celebration while we were in Japan.

The Obon summer holiday is a time when many Japanese travel home to smaller cities to spend time with their families and pay their respects to their ancestors often in the form of parades, fireworks, and several traditional rituals as well. I honestly couldn’t believe our luck that we would be visiting Japan during this time (it does make up for the oppressive weather to some extent!), and I spent a lot of time trying to find the right place for us to witness an Obon festival. Ultimately, we decided to celebrate Obon in the coastal city of Matsushima for 3 reasons:

A glimpse of Matsushima's coastline
A glimpse of Matsushima’s coastline
  1. Obon aside, Matsushima is considered to have one of the top three coastlines in all of Japan, meaning it would be worth a trip independent of any festival considerations;
  2. Matsushima has one of the best Obon firework displays over its bay;
  3. Part of Matsushima’s Obon celebration involves something known as toro nagashi, in which lit paper lanterns are inscribed with the names of departed relatives and set to float out on the water

Once I read about toro nagashi, our fate was sealed. I am not too proud to admit that ever since I saw the movie Tangled (yes, a Disney movie!) and was made aware of floating lantern festivals, I have wanted to see one with my own eyes. Although places like Taiwan and Thailand actually have the lanterns gently rise high into the sky, I liked the idea of these softly glowing lanterns bobbing against the waves of the sea.

Toro Nagashi floating across the bay

Because Matsushima is so beautiful, it is a wildly popular destination with the Japanese, so hotel prices in town were rather prohibitive. Happily, we were able to base ourselves in the larger city of Sendai (which was badly hit by the 2011 tsunami, but has rebounded amazingly well), which is only about a 30-minute train ride from Matsushima. Although there is purportedly a lovely boat ride one can take halfway between Sendai & Matsushima so that you arrive at Matsushima via its famous bay, we felt we had had enough boats following our dalliance in Tokyo, and opted to simply take the train, which was completely covered by our rail passes.

Upon reaching Matsushima, we made our way to the information booth located right outside the station and spoke with a very helpful lady who gave us one of the best English maps we have yet to see in Japan and offered several suggestions of things to see and do. She also confirmed that there would indeed be Obon festivities happening that evening right around the bay; thank goodness my internet sleuthing had not led us astray!

Getting around Japanese Cities
For many Japanese cities, we recommended storing the heavy guidebooks in your room and simply picking up a map at the train station when you arrive at your destination. Pretty much any train station you could think to get off at has an information booth and they all have English maps that are more than adequate for getting you to the important sights.

Matsushima is not a very large city, so we started off strolling down the main strip toward the ferry pier. As we walked, we encountered many restaurants with open storefronts where little old ladies were grilling piles of fresh seafood, much of creatures we had never seen before! When it began to drizzle slightly, we decided to pop into a shop where the chefs grinned the widest at us and have some lunch. Because the restaurant only had menus and specials written in kanji, we wound up heading back to the front of the restaurant and simply pointed at various of the items that we wanted to sample.

Our lunch was clearly fresh from the sea, and when you’ve got food that is that fresh, it’s hard to go wrong, even if, like Tony, you tend to be a bit leery of seafood. Everything was perfectly cooked and had great flavor, but our favorites were probably the squid as well as the scallop (which was more tender & meaty than any scallop I’ve ever had the good fortune to eat before).

After our midday repast, we decided to work of our lunch by heading to Oshima, a little Buddhist island that is purportedly filled with caves and carvings. Originally, women were not allowed to venture onto this holy island because of the monks living there, and unfortunately for us, history was made real that day as all paths to the island were closed. We are not sure why this was, but we suspect that it may have had to do with the tsunami. Although most of Matsushima was largely spared from the tsunami due to safe haven provided by the bay (and the many rock islands within it), we suspect that Oshima may have taken quite a drubbing.

With that plan foiled, we decided to head to Sokanzan instead. It is about 1 km outside of the center of Matsushima, and is a look-out promontory offering some of the best views of the bay. Despite its relative proximity, it took us about 3 hours to make it there, because as we walked along the coast we decided to take a little rest at a covered picnic area. The air was so cool and the nice breeze coming off the water chased all the humidity away that we both wound up napping on those picnic benches for quite some time. It was just so soothing and peaceful, we were lulled to sleep before we knew it, and I honestly can’t say I regret it!

We did eventually make it to Sokanzan and were rewarded with this view:

The view from the top

Eventually we knew it was time to return to the land where mere mortals walk the earth, and so we made our way back to the harbor area and saw Kanrantei, a tea house that was moved to its current location as it provided the ideal vista for watching the rippling waters of the bay, and Godaido, a temple that is only open to the public once every 33 years. We missed its last opening by 6 years, so I guess we’ll just have to come back in 2039! (Also, even without getting to go inside, it was still a really beautiful temple and provided a stunning view of the bay).

It's said that if you trip on this bridge, you aren't ready to cross to the temple
It’s said that if you trip on this bridge, you aren’t ready to cross to the temple

And then before we knew it, the evening’s Obon festivities were beginning! As we made our way to the central festival area, we actually ran into the lady who had been working at the information booth that morning. She came over to us and asked if we remembered her (we didn’t) and wanted to know if we had been enjoying Matsushima (we had). She told us she would be working at the info booth that evening and if we had any questions, we should come and find her. We had read that people in the Miyagi prefecture of Japan tend to be very warm and welcoming towards visitors, and it was really wonderful to find that to be true!

The festival began with a Taiko drumming performance, which was, quite frankly, AMAZING. I don’t actually have words to describe the sounds those drums can make, but they are so primal and ancient, you feel they have the power to transport you back in time. If you close your eyes, you can so clearly envisage these drums being played right before an epic battle was to begin and it was enough to give me chills. But of course, the sounds are just part of the magic of Taiko, and to close your eyes would be to miss out on half the performance. I had never seen or heard anything like this before; each strike of the drums resonated deep within me, I felt walls that I did not know I had erected slowly begin to crumble. The gulf between myself and Japan that had seemed so large in Tokyo and had gradually been waning, finally fused close. The army of taiko drummers besieged by defenses, and I watched most of their performance with tears running down my face. Whether the drummers were holding sticks or wands, I’ll never know, but their performance was magic, of this I am sure.

If all we saw that night was that drumming, I likely would have been satisfied. But we knew the drumming was just kicking things off. For the next several hours, we watched as women and men in kimonos gathered around the central bandstand and danced the night away. Apparently these bon odori are meant to welcome in the spirits, and vary from region to region. Many of the dances are accompanied by songs that are performed live by musicians on traditional instruments. As for the singing, it sounded an awful lot like atonal caterwauling to us (we joked to each other that the musicians that evening were the town elders so no one could tell them to stop!), but we have to think it is all extremely traditional and likely a taste we simply haven’t acquired as its unlike anything we’d heard in the west. In Matsushima, we witnessed 3 song and dance routines throughout the evening, and by the end, we had heard each song and seen each dance enough times that we felt confident that we could have done them ourselves. And indeed, at one point, Tony was encouraged by one of the festival organizers to join in on the fun and give the dancing a shot! Just another example of how the people of Matsushima were so kind and so welcoming as they did their very best to make sure we felt included in their special festival. We were happy to simply be observers, but those involved with the festival went out of their way to ensure we enjoyed ourselves.

And of course, what would a festival be without great street food? Japan is not generally a country that celebrates eating al fresco (most cities have a noticeable lack of garbage cans, meaning that you carry a lot of your trash with you until you make it home that evening), but obviously for Obon, they pull out all the stops. There were tons of delicious looking fair foods to tempt us, but in the end, we tried some fried chicken skewers and a baby okinomiyaki. Obviously, both were delicious!

Tony and I were having such a good time in the central festival area that we nearly missed the toro nagashi, which was the whole reason we chose to come to Matsushima for Obon! We rushed over to the waterfront, and watched in silence as we saw the tiny glowing lanterns bob upon the slick, black water. As they slowly began to float towards shore, congregating in the little cove we sat by, I felt so happy and at peace. This moment I had been waiting months, if not years, for was more beautiful and perfect than I ever dared hope. Expectations can be beastly things, but every so often, reality outshines the dreams we weave in our hearts, and such special moments are to be treasured.

Two lanterns adrift together in an endless sea… Do I smell a metaphor?

To cap it all off, as we were watching some of the last toro nagashi bob their way home, the much touted fireworks began. I have seen fireworks many time, but never have they seemed quite so joyous or triumphant as they did in that moment. Each explosion and cascade of color mirrored my own effusion of happiness. To match the fireworks, I engaged in some waterworks of my own, as once more the perfection of this moment overcame me and the emotion of it all was too much to hold in. Best of all? We happened to be recording a video when this perfect, once-in-a-lifetime moment took place. What the video Tony put together below to see our highlights of the day!

We know that backpackers often fall into two camps—those who fastidiously plan, and those who fly by the seat of their pants—and we think this is perfect example of why doing a little bit of research ahead of time can pay off. It’s highly unlikely we would have just stumbled upon Matsushima at all (we only saw 4 other “gaijin” while there), never mind on the exact right day, but we are so happy we took the time to find out about it and made the effort to stray from the standard tourist trail to see it. The people were so warm and welcoming, and the festival surpassed our wildest dreams. We loved witnessing this special celebration, and it really touched us to see a culture that acknowledges and pays tribute to its personal and collective history with such unabashed joy and reverence. Indeed, our time in in Matsushima showed us that the veil between past and present is as thin as the sliding paper doors in most Japanese homes. It was fascinating and intoxicating to witness the past rouse itself from a delicate slumber and roar brilliantly to life once more with such intensity and verve. If the Japanese have such a strong, unerring national identity, it must surely be because they refuse to allow their legacies to fade and be forgotten. My only hope is that in the days and years to come my memory of this day—a perfect day if ever there was one—will stay sharp and true as well.

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17 comments Leave a comment

  1. What an amazing experience – I love the video! The combination of the exciting drums and fireworks with the seemingly calm dances and floating lights is really impacting… Great Post, you’re making me want to go to Japan a little more every time!

    Sep. 10 2012 @ 11:32 am
    1. Dana - Our Wanderlust

      Thanks for the kind words on the video – I was a photographer for years, but I havce been using this trip to try and slowly teach myself how to take useable video. I think the results have definitely been mixed, but this was an easy thing to capture, so much to look at everywhere I turned!

      Sep. 11 2012 @ 8:29 am
  2. This is such a thrilling post. I actually have a unit on celebrations I teach, and Obon is one of them. So cool to see you actually participate in one! The lanterns especially have me oohing and ahhing. Lovely.

    That’s part of why I love the smaller towns, the celebrations feel so genuine. One of my favorite travel memories was going to the small town of Cortona in Tuscany, sitting down to dinner with a fellow travel fiend I met in Venice and watching as a small festival started up. There was a falconry exhibit and a small petting square, and she and I absolutely loved it.

    I’m so glad you guys got to experience something so fantastic.

    Sep. 10 2012 @ 12:15 pm
    1. jenn aka the picky girl author

      Yes, while I do love a big city, I find that when traveling, the smaller cities have undiluted charm to them… They generally seem less concerned with tourism and are more interested in just getting on with life as they know it! The festival you witnessed in Italy sounds amazing! I hope we’ll get to see something similar when we make it to Europe!

      Sep. 12 2012 @ 1:58 am
  3. I’ve never heard of Obon before. I’m learning so much about Japan from you!! I love the drummer pictures – sounds like an amazing time!

    Sep. 10 2012 @ 4:33 pm
    1. Amanda author

      My friend Laura had raved about taiko drumming after spending time in Japan but I didn’t give it a second thought until I saw it for myself. Then I suddenly understood just how powerful it was! If you ever get a chance to see a performance, you must!

      Sep. 12 2012 @ 1:59 am
  4. I just missed Obon when I was in Japan… love the paper lanterns!

    Sep. 10 2012 @ 5:04 pm
    1. Hogga author

      I feel so lucky that the start of our trip just happened to coincide with Obon! It really wasn’t something we had planned, but I am so glad it worked out that way… It really did make up for how muggy Japan is in August!

      Sep. 12 2012 @ 2:00 am
  5. Wow, this is my favorite post of yours so far!! You obviously had a very special time. Tony, the video is amazing…I am inspired!

    Sep. 10 2012 @ 5:22 pm
    1. Gillian @OneGiantStep

      Thanks so much! I am really happy with it, it was an amazing night and I’m glad I was able to do it a little justice.

      Sep. 11 2012 @ 8:30 am
  6. It all sounds and looks so amazing! And it also sounds like you’re finding your travel mojo. Hurray for Obon and the people of Matsushima for being so welcoming…I’m sure this will remain a treasured memory.

    Sep. 11 2012 @ 9:33 pm
    1. softdrink author

      We’ll definitely treasure this experience for a long time to come. It really helped us connect with Japan in way we hadn’t previously, and you’re right that the people being so welcoming went a long way towards that!

      Sep. 12 2012 @ 2:01 am
  7. I can seriously barely handle these Japan posts…I am so jealous! OBON! I’ve never been there while Obon was going on and I definitely have to do that. I am loving all your photos and so happy you both are enjoying my favorite country. Totally living vicariously through you right now, which is ridiculous since I’ve just moved to a tropical paradise and living the dream diving every day… but …but… OBON! 🙂

    Sep. 11 2012 @ 10:26 pm
    1. Rika @ Cubicle Throwdown author

      It seems like every day there is a festival going on somewhere in Japan, but I think Obon was probably one of the very best we could have been there to see! I hope you get to see it for yourself someday because it really is magical! And I understand what you mean about the odd sense of jealousy, since even though we’re out there in the world living this life we have wanted for so long, we still see posts from other travelers that make us think that we are doing it all wrong and need to go where they are immediately! 😉 From your latest post it really sounds like despite some rough patches this past month you’re really loving your new life, so I think that for now, Obon can wait for you! 😉

      Sep. 12 2012 @ 2:04 am
  8. What a beautiful festival! The Japanese sure know how to celebrate!! Thanks for bringing these pictures, must have been fantastic to enjoy in person 🙂

    Sep. 20 2012 @ 6:16 am
    1. Arti author

      Yes, we have found that when the Japanese do something, really ANYTHING, they do it right! It was such a fantastic experience and I am so glad we got to be part of it!

      Sep. 22 2012 @ 6:40 pm

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