Obon – Japan

July or August
July 13-15 (Gregorian calendar)
15th day of 7th month (lunar calendar)

“In the time of Shaka; one of his fellows Mokuren saw the image of his dead mother suffering in hell. Mokuren was desperate to relieve her pain and asked Shaka for help. Shaka answered, “On 15th of July, provide a big feast for the past seven generations of dead.”‘— Japan 101

OK, Buddha may not have actually said “15th of July”, since he lived 300 years before Julius Caesar. But he did say “15th day of the seventh month.” Whether that’s according to the lunar or solar calendar depends on who you ask.

In the lunar calendar the Festival of Obon—the Japanese festival of the dead—tends to fall in August. But in Tokyo and the east of Japan, many temples observe Obon according to the solar calendar—on July 13th through the 15th. The result is that anywhere you look between mid-July and August there’s bound to be Obon festivities happening somewhere.

Obon is one of the most important holidays in the Japanese calendar, second only to New Year’s Day in most communities. Japanese usually return home to be with their families during the Obon season to carry on a tradition that has been celebrated for over 500 years in Japan.

Families enjoy time together, partake in Obon rituals and tidy up the graves of their ancestors.

Lantern floating ritual, 2004

One tradition is to release floating paper lanterns on the water on the last night of Obon, in order to guide the departed spirits to the after world.

Another is the age-old Bon Odori, or Bon Dance, which emulates the dance of joy and gratitude that Mokuren did when his mother was released from hell.

Obon is a shortened form of the word urabon’e, which means “hanging upside-down and suffering.” The purpose of Obon is relieve the suffering of the Urabon’e.

Three Manly Games – Naadam in Mongolia

July 11

This week thousands of Mongolians gather to celebrate Revolution Day, July 11, and to compete in Mongolia’s biggest festival: Eriin Gurvan Naadam, or the Three Games of Men.

The “Three Manly Sports” as they’re called, are: Archery, Wrestling, and Horseback-riding. (Sorry guys, for whatever reason Ultimate Frisbee didn’t make the cut.)

“For 2,000 years, these three sports were not just entertainment, but a vital part of military training for the nomadic tribes of the steppes between Siberia and China.”  — Christian Roy, Traditional Festivals

Naadam ceremony 2006, photo by Vidor
Naadam 2006

Around a thousand years ago the three activities merged into the Naadam Festival. The historic games were a rite of strength and courage among the region’s nomadic warriors. In the 13th century Genghis Khan and grandson Kublai incorporated Naadam into the political ceremony of the newly unified nation.

The festival began to be celebrated every third year under the religious leader Zanabazar in 1641. In the 20th century the government moved the annual celebration to July 11 to commemorate the Mongolian Revolution of 1921.

Naadam means “to play.” Day One of the three-day festival begins with the Mongolian President’s inaugural speech and the impressive opening ceremonies, followed by archery and wrestling in Ulaanbaatar Stadium. The wrestling bouts are a sight to behold. According to journalist Ron Gluckman,

“The field is empty when the national anthem is chanted by the crowd. Then, without warning, hundreds of men suddenly toss aside robes, and scream madly as they bound down into the arena, stripped down to little more than leather boxing shorts.” — The Alternative Olympics

A wrestler is out the moment his elbow or knee hits the ground. Two full days of intensive bouts whittles the playing field down from 512 wrestlers to just two. There’s no division by size—the smallest wrestler can prove himself against the largest. Legend has it that a woman won one year, which is why the men now wear revealing tops. Wrestling is the only one of the three ‘manly’ sports in which women aren’t allowed to compete.

Women's archery, Naadam, 2005

The archery competition involves Mongolia’s weapon of choice since the 12th century. The arrows are made of willow, vulture feathers, and bone, and bows are strung with bull tendons. Mongolians are proud to point out that their ancestors perfected the bow as a weapon, and that even back in 1224 AD, according to the ancient Stone of Genghis Khan, a Mongolian archer named Yesunke hit a target 536 meters away in a competition organized by Genghis himself.

Mongolians learn to ride horses before they can walk. According to the UB Post, back in the day the Naadam races included up to 45,000 jockeys. The races take place out on the open steppes. Children as young as 6 compete, as well as women, who often do so in stiletto heels. (Mongolian women love their stiletto heels. Even the policewomen wear them.) Finishing first in the race is no small honor. The winner gets to bow before the President of Mongolia.

After hundreds of years, Naadam is still a vital part of Mongolia’s national heritage. For three days, beginning on Mongolia’s national day, Mongolians celebrate mastery of the three skills that allowed a group of horsemen to conquer much of two continents.

Mongol Archer
Mongol Archer

Happy Birthday Dalai Lama!

July 6

He was born this day in 1935, the fifth of 16 children, nine of whom survived to adulthood. He has spent five of his seven decades as Tibetan Buddhism’s spiritual leader outside his homeland.

China invaded Tibet in 1950. The Dalai Lama escaped from Tibet in 1959 during the March 10 uprising, in which followers gathered outside his palace to prevent the People’s Liberation Army from kidnapping him. The Dalai Lama fled the country to avoid potential violence.

Currently, the Dalai Lama’s envoys are in China seeking a diplomatic resolution to the Tibetan conflict.

Dragon Boat Festival

5th day of 5th lunar month
June 23, 2012
June 6, 2011
June 16, 2010;

Dragon Boats

Duanwu is often called Double Fifth, because it falls on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month of the Chinese calendar, but it’s more commonly referred to as the Dragon Boat Festival, after its most famous annual event.

Almost as famous are the delicious special foods prepared for this date. The traditional dish, zongzi, is a triangular rice ball stuffed with sweet or savory fillings, and wrapped in bamboo leaves. The Duanwu beverage of choice is a special realgar yellow rice wine.


The inspiration for the holiday comes from the death of one of China’s first great poets, Qu Yuan. Qu Yuan was a political advisor in the late forth century BC who urged his king to unite with other kingdoms against the rising state Qin. However, jealous and corrupt political opponents counseled the king against the advice of Qu Yuan, who was accused of treason and forced into exile. It was during this exile that Qu Yuan traveled the country gathering and recording local folklore and legends.  When Qin did eventually attack and capture the capital city of Ying, Qu Yuan composed one of his greatest works, “Lament for Ying”. He then committed suicide by tying himself to a rock and jumping into a river.

The local fishermen tried to keep the fish from eating Qu Yuan’s body by throwing food into the water. Over time this became a tradition. Later a legend gained credence that Qu Yuan was killed by a great underwater dragon.


Qu Yuan

The Maoist government banned celebrations of Duanwu in 1949. It wasn’t until only a few years ago that the Chinese government officially reinstated three of the country’s most popular holidays: Tomb Sweeping Day, Mid-Autumn Festival and Duanwu.

Malaysian Harvest

May 30-31

The end of May marks the Malaysian Harvest Festival in Sabah…


The best time to visit Sabah and experience this occasion is from May 30th to 31st, when the Kadazan and Dusun communities offer thanksgiving for a bountiful harvest. Highlights include a beauty pageant, cultural dances and rituals that culminate in the Thanksgiving ceremony performed by the ‘Bobohizan,’ or high priestess.”



The padi and rice festival is called Tadau Ka’amatan, and you’ll hear shouts of “Kopivosian Tadau Ka’amatan” (Happy Harvest Festival) throughout the streets.

During the festival, Sabah natives wear their traditional costumes and enjoy a carnival atmosphere which stretches from daybreak till dawn. ‘Tapai’ or home-made rice wine is served as the specialty for the day…

“According to their beliefs, the spirit of the paddy plant is said to be part of the Kinoingan – also known as the Bambaazon, who is revered as the creator, a source of life and existence. The rice spirit Bambaazon is therefore revered in the rice plant, the rice grain and the cooked rice. Many believe that “Without rice, there is no life“.

“The highlight of this harvest festival is a dance performed by the high priestess (Bobolian) in search of the rice spirits, whose presence is vital for a fruitful harvest. Much fun and excitement take place and merry makers indulge in dancing, feasting, and drinking of a potent wine called ‘tapai,’ buffalo racing and arm wrestling. The festivities end with the crowning of the Harvest Queen.” (tourismmalaysiausa.com)

“Moving in a single file, close to one another, the Bobohizan and their assistants enter the ‘spirit’ world in search of Bamabarayon. Every time a stray Bambarayon is located, piercing screams or pangkis is heard, expressing joy at the find, thus ensuring that they have another good harvest.” (harvestfestivals.net)

If you’d like to see Sabah, Malaysia but can’t afford the plane ticket, you can always rent Survivor. The immortal first season, including Susan’s famous “rat vs. snake” speech, was filmed in Sabah, at the northern tip of the island of Borneo.

Timor of the Rising Sun

O mundo é dos audazes. Timor triunfará!

— Jorge Heiter

East Timor (now Timor-Leste) is the eastern half of a small island–conveniently named ‘Timor’–southeast of Indonesia. ‘Timor’ actually means East, or Rising Sun, so technically it’s ‘East East’.

Timor-Leste is one of two Catholic countries in Asia, the other being the Philippines; and the only Asian country where Portuguese is a second language.

For over 400 years the Portuguese ruled East Timor as a colony, until a 1975 coup d’etat in Portugal ushered in an era of de-colonialization. With a destabilized government, fighting broke out between two Timorese political parties, one of which allied themselves with Indonesia. (Indonesia occupied the western half of Timor.) The other party, FRETILIN, unilaterally declared East Timor an independent nation on November 28, 1975.

That independence was short lived.

The following week the Indonesian military, under President Suharto, began one of the most brutal, and one of the most ignored, invasions and occupations of the second half of the 20th century.

The United Nations condemned the invasion, but took no further action. Indonesia justified the invasion by claiming that the artificial border that split the island was the result of European imperialism and political oppression. (The Dutch had once occupied West Timor.)

Constancio was a young boy at the time of the invasion. Like many others, he and his family fled to the jungle, where he witnessed friends and family die from illness and starvation. All the while the Indonesian air force continued bombing from above. After several months he was captured and interred in a make-shift concentration camp that was worse than the mountainous jungle.

“There were thousands of people in a small area that was infested by mosquitoes and with no running water, no food. At least 15 people died every day.”

The island was effectively cut off from the rest of the world; it is estimated that of a population of 700,000, up to 100,000 Timorese died in the first 5 years of occupation.

After being released, Constancio became a servant to an Indonesian police officer in Dili. He gained entrance to a private school and became active in a students’ movement for an independent East Timor.

In 1991 Constancio helped organize a demonstration protesting the murder of Sebastiao Gomes, a 22 year-old killed in a church the month before. As over 3,000 unarmed demonstrators converged on the cemetery where Gomes was buried, Indonesian troops opened fire using American-made M16s. He recalled…

“We didn’t think they would open fire with United Nations observers and journalists being there.

Over 250 Timorese were killed; 200 more ‘disappeared’ in the following military crackdown. What separated the massacre of Santa Cruz from previous atrocities was that it was documented by Australian media, one of the few events on the otherwise isolated island to be so. The massacre at Santa Cruz became a rallying point for supporters of Timorese independence.

With a little less luck, Constancio might have been one of the disappeared, but he was tipped off by an inside friend who warned him not to go home that night when the secret police were waiting for him.

Constancio escaped to the western half of the island with the aid of friends, false papers, and money to bribe an Indonesian official to issue him a passport to Singapore.

He never took a moment of his freedom for granted. Traveling to Portugal and the U.S., he spread awareness of the situation in East Timor. In 1993 he matriculated to Brown University and he continued speaking across the U.S. about his life, the East Timor people, and the horrors he had seen.

In 1996, two of his countrymen Jose Ramos-Horta and Bishop Ximenes Belo, won the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts at ending the violence in East Timor, bringing international attention to the fate of the small island.

In the late 1990s the determination of Timorese like Pinto, Ramos-Horta, and Ximenes Belo, as well Australian journalists like Allan Naird, met with help from an unlikely source. The crash of the Asian markets in 1997 destabilized Indonesia, and the ensuing recession forced President Suharto to call an end to his 30-year reign in May 1998. Dependent on foreign support during the financial crisis, the new President gave in to the international community’s demands for an election in East Timor.

On August 30, 1999, East Timor voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia. But even after the election, paramilitary groups continued attacks on unarmed civilians in an attempt to provoke widespread violence and justify the need for Indonesian peacekeepers. Despite provocation, the Timorese kept their side of the peace.

Under international pressure, the last Indonesian troops left East Timor on October 31, 1999.

On this day in 2002 Timor-Leste became the first newly-independent nation of the 21st century.

Timor Com Dor e Com Amor

Flight from East Timor: Student works from Brown base toward freedom for his homeland – Richard Morin

East Timor and the International Community – Heike Krieger

The Future of East Timor

The Path out of Poverty

Instability Sours Timor Celebration

I have come a long way, but East Timor has come further

Vesak – Buddha’s Birthday

May 10/17, 2011

It’s often called Buddha Day, or Buddha’s Birthday, but it’s far more than that. Vesak is a celebration of Buddha’s birth, his life, his path to Enlightenment, and his final reaching of Nirvana.

Around 563 BC, in the foothills the Himalaya, the pregnant wife of a wealthy prince left her home to deliver her baby in her father’s kingdom, as was the tradition. But along the way she stopped in a garden and beneath the shade of a sal tree, she gave birth to the boy Siddhartha. This park, on what is now the border of India and Nepal, is called Lumbini, Sanskrit for “the lovely”.


His mother died immediately after his birth. Despite the loss of his mother, his father the prince went to great trouble to shield him from all human misery and ugliness. He was given everything he could want, and was kept a safe distance from the suffering of the outside world.

“I was delicate, most delicate, supremely delicate. Lotus pools were made for me at my father’s house solely for my use; in one blue lotuses flowered, in another white, and in another red…My turban, tunic, lower garments and cloak were all of Benares cloth. A white sunshade was held over me day and night so that I would not be troubled by cold or heat, dust or grit or dew.”

At age 29 Siddhartha chose to venture outside the castle property to meet his subjects beyond. Before the excursion his father secretly ordered every sick, homeless, and old person in the village to be removed from his son’s view. But on his journey, Siddhartha chanced upon an elderly man–the first of Siddhartha’s Four Encounters.

Intrigued and disturbed by the sight of the old man, he planned subsequent trips to explore life outside the carefully-orchestrated castle. For the first time, Siddhartha witnessed disease in the form of a severely ill man. On his third trip he saw death in the form of a corpse. His charioteer gave him a crash-course in life’s harsh reality: all grow older, grow sicker, and die.

Trying to make sense of the desperation, Siddhartha made his fourth encounter–with a man who at once seemed to have the answers of the world and yet owns nothing. He’s an ascetic.

Siddhartha chose to flee from his father’s kingdom. He renounced his father’s materialism and his worldly connections–leaving his wife and their newborn son–to learn the ways of asceticism.

Siddhartha became a common street beggar for his sustenance, but he was easily recognized as the wealthy prince. He traveled further, studying under two ascetic masters, one after the other, but was ultimately unfulfilled with each of their teachings.

With five companions he took asceticism to a new level, reducing his food intake to little more a nut or leaf per day. For six years he lived the life of an ascetic.

“My body reached a state of extreme emaciation. Because of eating so little my limbs became like the jointed stems of creepers or bamboo; my backside became like a buffalo’s hoof…”

In the end, he was so weak, he nearly drowned in a river while trying to wash.

Lying there he heard a boat pass, with two musicians on board. One told another, inspecting his instrument, “If you tighten the string too tight it will snap, but if it is too loose, it will not play.”

Siddhartha realized that neither extreme asceticism nor materialism is the path to enlightenment. He recalled falling into a meditative state as a child, as close as he’d ever been to Enlightenment. In order for his mind to reach such a state again, he must nourish the body. His five companions desert him, convinced that Siddhartha has lost his willpower. But at that moment a young girl named Sujata arrived and offers him milk-rice.

Sitting beneath a pipal tree, Siddhartha made a solemn vow:

Let only skin, sinew and bone remain, let the flesh and blood dry in my body, but I will not give up this seat without attaining complete awakening.

After 49 days of meditation Siddhartha reached Englightenment. From that moment on he became Buddha, or the ‘Awakened One’.

Buddha spent the rest of his forty-five years passing on wisdom to his disciples, including the Noble Truths and the 5 Precepts, before reaching the final state of Nirvana, when his soul left his body.

Buddha’s 5 Just Say No’s

Just Say No to:

Sexual misconduct
Drugs (intoxicants)

Buddha also rejected the ways of the caste system, as well as religious ritual for ritual’s sake.

Vesak comes from the word Vaishakha, the second month of the Hindu calendar. Buddha’s ‘Birthday’ is celebrated on the full moon of Vesak, usually in May.

It is not a holiday of wild abandon, but of joy, introspection, and spiritual exploration.

“The Buddha showed us that advancement in this world and the next could be achieved by appreciating what is good. The policy of the government is to steer the country to the correct path by adhering to the Dhamma. In doing so our responsibility is to tolerate other opinions and act with loving kindness.

As the Buddha has taught: “Be alert; do not idle. Follow the law of virtue. He who is virtuous lives happily both in this world and the next

— President of Sri Lanka, Vesak Day message, 2008

In the Buddha’s footsteps…





Greenery Day – Japan

May 4

A small cloud has fallen
The white mist hits the ground
My lungs comfort me with joy.

Green Day, by Green Day

Ok, the above’s not a Japanese haiku, nor is about today’s holiday. (It bears more in common with one that takes place on 4/20) But today is “Midori no Hi”—literally Green Day, or Greenery Day. Midori means Green—hence the green, melon-based liqueur—and Hi means Day.

Greenery Day (Midori no Hi) originated from the celebration of the birthday of the late Emperor Hirohito, who reigned for most of the 20th century. In Japan, he’s known as the “Showa” Emperor. Showa means harmony, or enlightened peace, or the “search for balance between two different, often opposing elements”. (It is also a Japanese glove company.)

In Japan, the reigning Emperor’s birthday is a national holiday; after the Showa Emperor died in 1989, the Japanese people wanted to continue celebrating his birthday (April 29). They chose the name Greenery Day after the late Emperor’s love of nature. Between 1989 and 2006, Greenery Day was celebrated on April 29.

Beginning in 2007, the Japanese government renamed April 29 “Showa no Hi” (Showa Day) to formally honor the late Emperor, and moved Greenery Day to May 4.

Why May 4?

May 4 was already a holiday (and no we’re not talking about Star Wars Day). May 4 falls between two major holidays, Constitution Day and Children’s Day. And in Japan, any day that falls between two holidays is a holiday itself. [My kind of country. –Ed.] Besides, Greenery Day sounds better than Generic National Holiday.

Falling in the middle of Spring, Greenery Day is a time to commune with nature and enjoy the outdoors.

Showa Day, Constitution Day, Greenery Day, and Children’s Day make up what’s known as Golden Week in Japan. (Technically, Showa Day is an independent holiday, not part of Golden Week, but we’re not technical here.) Golden Week is one of, if not the biggest week for travel in the Japanese calendar. It makes American Thanksgiving look like a Wednesday in February. So if you’re traveling in Japan this week, hopefully you made all your arrangements in the Bronze Age.

Midori no Hi — Transparent Language Japanese blog

Showa Day holiday — hoofin.wordpress.com