In the Buddhist tradition, Obon is a commemorative festival to celebrate one's ancestors. Mitama Matsuri is one such festival held at Yasukuni Shrine, falling each year on the 13th to the 15th of July, according to the solar calendar. On the lunar calendar, Obon can be celebrated on the same days in August. Mid-August is known as Obon-yasumi, as it's a time for taking a break from work and getting together with family. Usually Obon-yasumi runs for about a week and you have a chance to don your yukata (casual summer kimono) and celebrate.
Obon festivals traditionally feature glowing lanterns to help spirits find their way. Mitama Matsuri famously uses over 30,000 lanterns lining the path from the food stall areas all the way to the shrine itself.
As this is an event to honor the dead, it may seem a bit crass to find that there are a number of obake yashiki (haunted houses) at the festival. These obake yashiki are an extremely popular summertime tradition. Shrieks and shrill laughter fill the food stall area. The haunted houses are found in the entertainment zone for children where there are also a number of classic carnival games like goldfish-scooping for kids.
The food stalls are one of the major attractions of attending matsuri. Find takoyaki (octopus-filled ball-shaped dumplings), okanomiyaki (grilled pancake with savory ingredients), yakitori (grilled chicken), bagged watame (cotton candy) and so much more. Of course, you can also get your drink on and swig some beers or mixed cocktails. The fragrant smells will delight your senses and draw you right to the nearest food stall. Expect to wait in line, as over the course of the festival 300,000 people attend.
One of the best parts of attending matsuri is dressing up. Both men and women, young and old, dress in their yukata. And even better than getting ready for the event are the festivities themselves. Watch and listen to teams of taiko drummers battle it out on stage performing their latest pieces. Certainly the most impressive aspect of the festival is watching the teams carry the large mikoshi (portable shrine) down the pathway leading to the shrine.
It's crowded and hot but Mitama Matsuri is an exciting Japanese tradition that should not be missed.