Meaning of Urabon Shouryoudana

Welcoming our ancestors through celebrating Urabon-e is a very important event that must be continued. During the three days of Obon, lasting from July 13 to July 16 an altar other than the family altar is made out of small tables and called a “shouryoudana.” This shouryoudana is used for calling the ancestors spirits and offering them food and certain delicacies. Bamboo is placed on each of the four corners of the shouryoudan with a rope made from wild rice straw tied to each piece of the bamboo. On that rope, as seen in the picture above, we tie certain plants with specific meanings and let them drape down. On top of the table, a mat made from the wild rice straws is spread out and food such as fruits, cookies, and vegetables are placed. A lotus leaf is placed on both sides of the table, the one on the left containing diced eggplants and the one on the right filled with water. The eggplants on the left are meant to represent our 108 worldly passions, and the water on the right is meant to purify those worldly passions. A horse is also made out of a cucumber, and a cow out of an eggplant. The horse represents our hopes of the ancestors to come quickly riding the horse, and the cow represents our hopes for them to return to the spiritual world slowly, riding the cow, expressing our hopes to spend more time with our ancestors. It is important to welcome and treat our ancestors the same way as treating a guest from a distant location. The Obon in Tokyo and Yokohama is from July 13 to July 16, however in the countryside, Obon is from August 13 to August 16. Many people from the cities return to their hometowns, making Tokyo appear to be very empty during that time and shops left no other option but to close down for the time period. Like this, there are many people in Japan who care for their ancestors so I would like you all, even if you don’t make a shouryoudana, to care for your ancestors and continue to pray for them.

Ven. Kenjo Igarashi
July 2017

Postscript: In response to “On that rope, as seen in the picture above, we tie certain plants with specific meanings and let them drape down,” a writer asked: “Could you tell me the name of these herbs and their meaning?”

First, the reason why we put up the rope is to create a barrier so as to prevent the evil spirits from crossing the division (towards the altar). I want to mention that in Japan, there are many ways to prepare the altar for Obon, depending on the region, family, etc. Therefore, the plants draped on the rope also differ depending on the region, family, etc. That being said, some people usually just put up a plant called Physalis alkekengi (“hozuki” in Japanese, or “Chinese lantern” plants). This is because as the English name suggests, the plant is shaped like a lantern and therefore represent a physical lantern to light the way and guide your ancestral spirits to your altar. Once the spirits arrive, it is said that they rest on the plants and listen to you chanting the sutra.

Preparing the altar for Obon (including the rope, plants, etc.) takes time, but it also provides you with the opportunity to express your gratitude towards your ancestors and remember those that have passed. Especially in the Lotus Sutra, the idea of praying for your ancestors is especially important.