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Instagram Photos Offer a Peek Into Nagasaki's Unique Send-Off for the Dead

Categories: East Asia, Japan, Arts & Culture, Citizen Media, History, Ideas, Photography, Religion

Nagasaki shoro nagashi (“sending off the dead” or “spirit boat procession”). Screencap from YouTube user akimama25 [1].

In mid-August every year, Japan observes Obon (お盆), the festival of the dead [2]. If they have the time and the money, family members return from the big cities to their ancestral homes to spend a week or so visiting the graves and remembering the dead.

It is believed the spirits of the deceased return to the family home at this time as well to spend a few days among the living. Once the week is up, the spirits return to the land of the dead for another year.

Every region of Japan has its own special way of observing Obon.

For example, many communities in Japan send off the dead at the end of Obon in a ceremony called toro nagashi [3] (灯籠流し), where paper lanterns are set adrift on a river or on the tide to be be carried away by the current back to the land of the dead.

Nagasaki's variation of this tradition includes firecrackers and gigantic floats in a ceremony that fills the streets of the city called shoro nagashi [4] (精霊流し), or “sending off the dead.”

Sometimes translated as a “spirit boat procession”, elaborate floats are constructed and paraded by the family members of someone who has died sometime in the previous 12 months. The destination for the Nagasaki dead is Paradise (Sukhavati, 極楽浄土 [5]).

Nearly 200 people participate in or come to view the event in Nagasaki. The spectators who line the streets often set off firecrackers.

Each year the whole thing is captured and shared on social media.

* * 道路で花火ができて大興奮のこどもたち♪ * 父さんは、爆竹責任者で赤のタスキ。 * * #精霊流し #お盆 #爆竹 #花火 [6]

A photo posted by tomo (@harunatsu514829) on

The kids are totally excited to be lighting off [roman candles] on the street, and their dad is a total “firecracker ninja” with his red sash.

Chinese-style firecrackers are not typically included as part of the traditional Japanese Obon festival in other parts of Japan. But Nagasaki, located in the far western reaches of Japan, has enjoyed a close trade relationship with China for at least 500 years. Nagasaki is notable for its Chinese-influenced cuisine and architecture, and the use of firecrackers as part of the shoro nagashi parade is yet another example of the city's strong ties with the China.

The firecrackers are said to ward off evil spirits.

⋆⋆ 0815 . 精霊流し!with ありさ . この船は花火が赤に統一されてて 周りが真っ赤になってた!! かっこよかったなあ! . 爆竹の音はテンションあがる⤴︎⤴︎ . #長崎#お盆#精霊流し#花火#街中#爆竹 #ぱっと見#火の海#赤#精霊船 #一眼レフ#デジイチ#kissX7#カメラ女子 #ファインダー越しの私の世界 [7]

A photo posted by iori (@ggg__ior) on

It's the shoro nagashi! This spirit boat was enveloped in red smoke thanks to people lighting off fireworks around it. It was really cool! 😊🌟💕 The firecrackers really increased the tension of the scene.⤴︎⤴︎

ごぶさた♡ It's been such a long time :) * * * It's call "Send Off Spirit Ceremony" an Annual local traditional event in every year in Nagasaki Japan… * 4年?5年?ぶりに生でみれたよ。 #精霊流し#長崎#精霊船 #夏#夏休み#お盆 #nagasaki#japan#spiritboat #sendoffspiritceremony #summer#holiday#happy [8]

A video posted by Ayumi Shiroyama (@ayumrpy) on

It's been a long time since I have seen this. Four years? Five years?

The floats themselves are built by both individual families and by neighbourhoods. They feature lanterns with the names of the recently deceased and a family crest.

Video caption: Nagasaki shoro nagashi 2015: solemnity mixes with liveliness.

Families or neighborhood association members pull the floats through the streets of Nagasaki, as do members of clubs or fraternal organizations. Floats typically feature a large, poster-size photo of the recently deceased.

ひたすらに飲んで騒いで疲れて楽しいお盆だった♡ #精霊流し #青野家女組 [9]

A photo posted by misaki mochizuki aono (@misaki.511) on

[The women of the Aono clan] concentrated on drinking booze, raising a little hell, getting tired and having fun this Obon.

#長崎#しょうろうながし #精霊流し #お盆#暑かった [10]

A photo posted by あたし (@chottomate.chotto) on

Floats come in all shapes and sizes. Families will typically construct smaller floats, while neighbourhood associations and fraternal organizations will build more elaborate creations.

#精霊流し#JHPヒト夏の思い出 #2015.08.15#長崎#中華街 #instagood #photooftheday #picoftheday #igers #instacool #photo [11]

A video posted by @buzzlaal on

お盆休み、満喫しました!来週も所用で長崎帰りまーす♪#精霊流し#毎日お酒飲んでる #お盆休み [12]

A photo posted by Naoya Tokunaga (@nao.ya) on

It's the Obon holiday, and I am eating and drinking my fill! And I get to come back to Nagasaki again next week for a business trip!

According to Wikipedia [4], people who are not mourning someone who has recently died will adorn the floats with fruits and flowers.

#長崎精霊流し #nagasaki #japan [13]

A video posted by @miinan513 on

長崎精霊流し。耳につんざく爆竹音。 何故爆竹なんだろう~ #長崎#長崎精霊流し#爆竹 #うるさい [14]

A video posted by @chi_qchan on

Nagasaki shoro nagashi. The firecrackers are so loud they hurt the ears. Why firecrackers???

Some floats are designed to look like objects and interests that the newly deceased held dear during their life.

For example, some floats may feature a prized possession like a car. This particular float was captured by two different people with two very different perspectives.

大の車好きの叔父。 生涯初の精霊流し参加の筈が、仕事で出れず! 一生悔やみます。 サービス業辞めたい! #長崎 #精霊流し #仲見世八番街 #minicooper #車好き [15]

A photo posted by Ryotaro (@rosso211198) on

My uncle who loved cars. Even though I was supposed to join a shoro nagashi for the first time in my life, I couldn't because I had to work! I'll regret that for the rest of my life. I have to quit the service industry!

車乗ってる船にびっくりしましたKTNの精霊流しも始まりましたね!こちらも取り上げられてます!#精霊流し [16]

A photo posted by MIYUKI DOI (@miyukidoiii) on

I couldn't believe it when I saw a float with a car on top 😳🚗🚗 This year's shoro nagashi has started, and I'm in a great place to snap photos!

Firecrackers are lit off during the afternoon and into the night as the parade continues on through the streets of Nagasaki.

長崎のお盆は精霊流し。この一年に亡くなった方々を賑やかに送り出します。皆さんが極楽浄土へ行けますように。 #2015夏#精霊流し#長崎#爆竹#越中先生 [17]

A video posted by @chie321q on

Nagasaki's Obon “spirit boat procession.” We're sending off the people who died over the past year in style. We're sending them off to Paradise (Sukhavati, 極楽浄土)!

There are a lot of firecrackers, and the lanterns are lit with real candles. Although injuries are rare, this year saw a float go up in flames in the most spectacular way.

That particular float was caught on camera and uploaded to Instagram before it caught fire.

長崎のお盆は精霊流し #精霊流し#長崎#爆竹オンパレード#20150815 [18]

A photo posted by momoka micky lee (@mickylee77) on

Shoro nagashi in Nagasaki for Obon.

Just a few hours, as shown towards the end of this newscast, the float caught fire and was destroyed, injuring one person.

While the floats used to be set adrift on Nagasaki Bay, in recent years the floats are retrieved from the ocean and burned in a subsequent ceremony in order to prevent pollution.

精霊船と送り火とおくりびと #一眼レフ #Nikon #長崎 #精霊流し [19]

A photo posted by こ た 。 (@kota_1221) on

Spirit boat, lit lanterns and the spirits of the deceased, and those who see the spirits off.