Japan: Obon Festivals Part II (Nagasaki: Shoro Nagashi Festival)


Japanese graves during Obon

Japanese graves during Obon

Nagasaki, Japan is an amazing place to visit during Obon, the festival to honor the spirits of the deceased. During this three-day event, families burn incense, light lanterns, and set off thousands of fireworks to welcome ancestors back to earth from the spirit world. The celebration reaches its pinnacle of excitement on the third night (August 15th) during Shoro Nagashi, or the Spirit Boat Procession.

Spirit boat being prepared to parade down the street

Spirit boat being prepared to parade down the street

Boats called shorobune (精霊船) that are said to carry the souls of the deceased on them, are pulled by people through the streets in a parade, accompanied by fireworks, gongs and drums! In this manner, the spirits are transported from their earthly homes to heaven. In the past, these boats were set ablaze and released into the waters of Nagasaki Bay, but due to pollution concerns, this is no longer the case. After the conclusion of the event, the boats which are typically lit by lanterns, carrying the family crest and bearing the portrait of the deceased relative are dissembled and hauled off.


Each boat has a different meaning, some are dressed as festival floats, while others are a private act of mourning for those who have lost a family member or close friend within the past year.


Preparations for the Shoro Nagashi generally begin one month before Obon. Warehouses, temples, shrines, parking spaces, and the side streets are utilized to construct the spirit boats. Mourners build each boat to reflect the achievements and interests of the deceased. For instance, someone who enjoyed playing Shogi will have a Shogi piece incorporated on the boat. The boats vary in size and the small boats often indicate that a young child has passed away.



The residents of Nagasaki reverently worship their ancestors with more commotion than anywhere else in Japan. Shoro Nagashi is loud, solemn, hectic, and sorrowful, but it is also a madly joyous time. The event draws over 180,000 people every year.


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