Home » 12 Months of Japanese Holidays: August’s Hassaku No Iwai and Obon
One of Japan's three major holiday seasons, August features two important cultural traditions: Hassaku No Iwai and Obon. The former is born from agricultural heritage, and the latter, Buddhist rituals.

Hassaku No Iwai

According to the now obsolete lunar calendar, Hassaku No Iwai occurs on the first day of the lunar calendar’s eighth month, which corresponds to August 1st on our modern Gregorian calendar. In the rural Japan of old, Hassaku was a time when farmers harvested the year’s first rice crop. They were understandably cognizant of the dangers that may face their fields throughout the upcoming harvest season. Especially because of the typhoons that tend to ravage Japan from this point onward each year.

Seasonal changes were traditionally very important times for farmers to strengthen their bonds with the God. This one is no exception. The tradition was to offer the first crop of rice to the God to pray for a successful harvesting season. They would then share with other farmers as well as neighbors to thank them. This rural custom is thought to have spread to the samurai, where it developed into the contemporary tradition we know today, in which Japanese people gift small presents and special foods.

Hassaku No Iwai Food

People gift sweet Hassaku mochi dumplings to those who are close to you in your work. A rice porridge called obana gayu is also popular for Hassaku No Iwai. Roasted ears of susuki grass are mixed in the rice porridge. It supposedly had medical properties to keep you fit for the harvest season. In rural areas, people ate toasted-black-sesame-seed rice porridge instead of obana gayu.

Do you know this holiday in Japan for eating octopus?

Obon

Sometimes called Bon, Obon is another annual holiday in Japan, during which Buddhists commemorate their ancestors. The Buddhists believed that the spirits return to this world to visit their descendants each year during the seventh month, from the 13th to the 15th days. Like many Japanese holidays, the discrepancy between the old lunar calendar and the modern one means that regions celebrate at varying times. Some celebrate in July, according to the solar calendar, while many choose August, which roughly coincides the formerly used lunar calendar.

Obon has become something of a reunion holiday. Various family members gather at significant places to honor the ancestors and their physical graves. Although customs vary quite a bit from one region to the next, people traditionally adorn the houses with lanterns, which guide the ancestors’ spirits on their annual journey. The lanterns are ultimately sent downstream or out to sea to help guide the ancestors back to their own world. Also popular are dances, called bon odori, as well as grave visits with food offerings at house altars and temples.

Obon Food

Dango mochi balls are a typical gift for the spirits, but other more unique offerings exist, as well. Somen is meant to help visiting ancestors wrap up their belongings with the noodle threads when they return to heaven. Meanwhile people believe that ohagi, or mochi with red bean paste, removes demons due to its color.

An interesting Obon tradition is making miniature horses and cows out of cucumber and eggplant. You simply stick disposable chopsticks in to form the legs, then position the creation outside the door on the first day of Obon with lit incense to help guide the spirits. The horse encourages the spirits to hurry, while the cow lets the ancestors know they should take their time.

Get the easy recipe for ohagi/ botamochi!