Obon, an annual Buddhist festival in Japan, plays an important role in the Japanese culture.
The spirits of ancestors are said to return to this world during obon, so the family prepares to welcome back and then to see the spirits off. Although it is not a national holiday many people take days off to gather and celebrate with their family. (For this reason, many offices and shops are likely to be closed during this time of the year).
The period of Obon varies in different regions of Japan but it typically begins on August 13th and ends on the 16th. In the Kansai region (western Japan), on the evening of the 13th lanterns are lit (this is called mukae-bi, welcoming fire) to welcome the ancestors. It is known that these lanterns will guide the spirits to find their home. Family prepare offerings and flowers in front of the altars (or graves) to welcome the spirits. And on the evening of the 16th, lanterns are lit (okuri-bi, sending-off fire) to guide the spirits to return to the other world.
Although it sounds like a closed, family event, many festivals are held throughout Japan such as toro nagashi (floating lanterns down a river), bon odori (folk dance), and fireworks.
One of the famous event is the Gozan-Okuribi in Kyoto. At 8pm of August 16th, five different characters will be lit on five mountains to send off the ancestors’ spirits. This has become one of the many tourist attractions in Kyoto during the summer.
See Kyoto City Tourism Association website for details.