御盆 Obon in Okinawa is often referred to as “kyuubon” 旧盆, which means “old Bon” because it is celebrated according to the lunar calendar (7th lunar month, 13th through 15th days 旧暦7月13日-15日). It is also called Shichiguachi しちぐぁち, meaning 7th month in Okinawan language. Obon is a custom to commemorate one’s ancestors; the spirits return to this world for 3 days to visit family. In 2016, this will be on August 15-17th.
There are 3 days of Obon:
ウンケー unke/unkeh: 1st day, welcoming day. This is the day where families usually visit graves and welcome the ancestors home. Families will gather at the eldest son’s residence (where the family altar, a butsudan 仏壇, is kept). The family altar is set up, and offerings of fruit, mochi, sweets, sake/awamori, beer, and stalks of sugarcane are placed. The sugarcane is left as walking sticks for the spirits walking from the heavens. Obviously the ancestors favorite foods are also usually placed. Lanterns are set up to guide ancestors home.
ナカビ or ナカヌヒ nakabi or nakanuhi: 2nd day, the middle day. On this evening, all my neighbors leave their doors and windows open, and have a large family dinner. The doors and windows are open to allow the ancestors to enter the home. Also, I see a lot of people distributing “gifts” (known as 御中元 ochuugen) on this day (mostly these are random food and household item gift sets sold in department and grocery stores all over), but any day leading up to or during Obon seems to be okay for distributing summer gifts. The eldest son’s family is in charge of the altar, so they must stay at home to receive other family members and visitors; so while the eldest son’s wife has to prepare many foods and the altar for Obon, they also receive many “gifts” in return, usually in the form of rice, beer, laundry soap, etc. For those family that are not the eldest child, instead they must prepare gifts and visit everyone else’s home where the altars are kept. So either way, it is sort of an expensive endeavor.
ウークイ uukui/ukui: 3rd day, farewell day. This last day of Obon is filled with music and eisa, to say farewell to the ancestor spirits and escort them back to the heavens. There is usually a big feast, with various foods that are offered and special paper money called uchikabiウチカビ is burned as for the ancestors so that they can use it in the spirit world. Some offerings and sugar cane is left out by the gate/fence/side of the road for the spirits to take home.
For the butsudan 仏壇 (altar) set up, many things are included. I will explain what is common in Okinawa… probably places in the mainland are a bit different, though some things will be the same or similar.
Rakugan 落雁: this is dried “sweets” pressed into a mold (very water soluble). Despite the colorful appearance, the taste is very subtle, just a little sugar; since this is for altar offerings it is usually more “starchy” than sugary.
Sugarcane さとうきび (satou kibi): set out as walking sticks for the spirits. It can also be used to help ancestors carry souvenirs back to the spirit world.
Medohagiメドハギ/soromeshiソーローメーシ: a type of weedy plant. Chopsticks for the ancestors use. I also read somewhere that this can be set out for purification purposes.
Ganshina ガンシナー: circular ropes so your ancestors can take home souvenirs (foods).
Ukui kasa ウークイカーサ: Alocasia leaves. This is apparently used so your ancestors can wrap souvenirs to take back to the heavens.
Uchikabi ウチカビ: Afterlife money. It is a Japanese paper with the design of coins on it. It is burnt on the last day (ukui) so that your ancestors have money in the afterlife.
Eggplant cow (nasu no ushi ナスの牛) and cucumber horse (kyuuri no uma キュウリの馬): placed outside the home so the ancestors can ride on them from the spirit world home, then placed on the altar on the first day of Obon. This may be more of a mainland thing than Okinawa, since Okinawa seems to use the sugarcane. With them is placed mizunoko 水の子, washed rice with diced cucumber and eggplant, although this is optional, it is supposed refresh returning spirits after their journey.
Somen そうめん: somen (noodles) are usually place on the altar as well. I don’t know why exactly, but the theory seems to be because somen is easily used in summer cooking, so it is convenient. I also hear it is to use as reins for the ancestors to ride the animals back to the spirit world.
senkou 線香: incense sticks (for purification).
bon-chouchin 盆提灯 : lanterns; these are placed at the altar and the front of the house, so spirits don’t lose their way.
makomo まこも: mat woven from straw of wild rice, used in rituals.
Of course, flowers, seasonal fruits/vegetables, and your ancestors favorite foods are also included on the altar. Typically UNRIPE fruit is used since it sits on the altar for 3 days… so sometimes it is not always so good to eat raw, but instead cooked.
On unkeh, there is the custom of eating unkeh juushii ウンケージューシー, which is a type of Okinawa cooked rice with various things mixed into it. It is a simple, but popular dish.
There is usually a box of specific foods during the feast day (Ukui) that contains: fried tofu 揚げ豆腐, burdock root (gobou ごぼう), kelp (usually tied in knots), fish cake (kamaboko かまぼこ), fried fishcake, konnyaku こんにゃく, tempura 天ぷら, fried taro (田芋 taimo) and of course, pork. There also usually a second box of white mochi (rice cakes) set out as well.
Not on the altar, but commonly served for the feast days are your typical trays of sushi, sashimi, fried things, chilled zenzai (sweetened red beans and mochi), cold somen noodles, nakami-jiru 中味汁(intestines soup).
The local grocery stores in Okinawa have ads for all your obon needs… this is an example of an advertisement from SanA.