It started in India, with a man who saw a vision of his dead mother. She was suffering from hunger because she couldn't find anything to eat after her death. Her son prepared food for her, but as soon as she approached it, it would catch fire.
Her son consulted a priest. "Your mother is being punished for sins committed in her previous life. Only Buddha's mercy can save her," the priest said.
So her son held a mass for his mother, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, and she was saved from eternal hunger thanks to Buddha.
|Food offering for O-bon: hōzuki, sweet potato, eggplant, grapes and various other fruit and vegetables|
This was the start of an Indian Buddhist festival called Ullambana, which eventually migrated to China as the Hungry Ghost Festival or Yu Lan, and to Japan as Urabon-e or O-bon for short.
Ullambana was introduced to Japan in 657 during the reign of Empress Regnant Saimyo. Initially it was observed by the nobility as a very solemn affair, but once it spread to the masses, it became not only a religious service, but also a joyous occasion. (Very happy: during the Tokugawa era, shop apprentices and household maids were allowed to return to their hometowns only twice a year, for New Year and for O-bon.) O-bon is still celebrated in Japan as the day on which the ancestors return to the homes where they used to live. Tokyo's celebration is held in July, but in other areas it's in August. This confusion arose when Japan changed from the lunar calendar to the Gregorian one: what used to be the seventh month is now August.
Family members clean graves and light fires or paper lanterns to help the spirits to find their way home. The fires that guide the spirits from the graves are called mukaebi, and those that are lit to accompany them back to their graves are called okuribi. Another practice is to place food at the family tomb or butsudan. The offer is usually a combination of hōzuki, grapes, sweet potato, eggplant and cucumber; but it can also include somen (thin wheat noodles), shiratama (small rice cakes), shiruko (sweet bean paste) and kanpyō (white gourd).
You can buy these items separately, but many supermarkets offer pre-packaged combinations. I bought a small one for ¥400 not to offer to any hungry ghosts, but to show you what it looks like.
This food offering is important; as a matter of fact, the word O-bon (お盆) refers to food: お is an honorary prefix, 盆 is a tray on which food is served to a guest. You're not supposed to eat this food yourself, so just to be on the safe side, I probably won't turn it into vegetable stir-fry. I don't want to invite a little evil spirit into my home again, as I did two years ago.