Oshorei (written as 御招霊; also pronounced as oshorai) is one of the annual events for the Japanese Urabon festival (a Festival of the Dead or Buddhist All Soul's Day, held around the 15th of July or August, depending on local customs). It is a kind of mukaebi (welcoming fire) which is lit to welcome ancestors' souls returning from the other world for the Obon festival (another word for Urabon Festival). It is also called Goshorai or Goshorei, and sometimes written as お招霊 (Oshorei).
Oshorei is practiced to help guide ancestors home with a light in the darkness. Mukaebi is the opposite practice of Okuribi, which is lit to see ancestors' souls off to the other world after Obon festival. According to the old lunar calendar, the event used to be held on July 13 (around present-day August), before the Obon Festival on July 15 (old calendar). Several young men from the village would carry large, heavy Taimatsu torches which they could just barely manage on their own, and parade through the streets waving them. The torch is made of Moso-chiku (Phyllostachys edulis) with a diameter of 7-10 cm and a length of 1.3-1.5 times longer than their height, to which a bundle of rice or wheat straw is bound as kindling. Sometimes cedar or other leaves are added to make the fire last longer.
As the event would spread sparks from the torches, it was held on a riverbank as a precaution against fire; this also acted as a landmark to guide souls to this world by lighting up the surface of the river for those who were coming back from the dark higan, or the other world, across Sanzu-no-kawa (Sanzu River). The exaggerated gestures of waving the torches is not only from the nature of hot-blooded young men, but also from an attempt to increase the fire, or prevent it from going out, by waving it through the air with all their might. It takes these big torches 10-15 minutes to burn out. This is a big once-a-year job for young men. By viewing this mukaebi from a distance, the other villagers, aside from the young men, join in welcoming their ancestors' souls.
In some regions, people circled around a big Taimatsu torch with smaller Taimatsu torches in their hands, and shouted "Gozare (Please come back), gozare" to call ancestors' souls to them.
Aside from this annual event for the Urabon festival, some other events such as memorial services for the goryo (or mitama: spirit of a deceased person) of ancestors or mizuko (aborted, stillborn or miscarried fetus; newborn baby) are also called Goshorei.
Mukaebi and Okuribi
In many cases, only one of the two ceremonial fires is lit at Obon festival: mukaebi as oshorei, for welcoming ancestors, or okuribi for seeing them off. It rarely happens that both events are practiced.
As for okuribi, it is still observed today at the entrance or in the garden of some houses, and also in larger scale such as Gozan Okuribi (Bonfire Events on Five Mountains) in Kyoto. On the other hand, the tradition of oshorei as a big mukaebi event for the whole village had been lost in many regions by around 1970, during a period of high economic growth. The reasons for this, which have also caused many other time-honored customs and events to disappear, include: concern about unexpected bush fire, lack of straw caused by a decrease in the farming population, changing life style of young men who are busy as office workers, construction of dams which drive villagers out of mountainous regions, depopulation and modernization.
Different mukaebi or okuribi practices from '御招霊' take place in Kyoto and many other regions in which they call the soul of the deceased itself 'oshorai' or 'oshorai sama' using the different kanji (Chinese characters): 'お精霊' or 'お精霊さま.'
Regions for Oshorei
Hokuriku district (with many believers of Jodo Shinshu: the True Pure Land Sect of Buddhism)
Kanaya-machi (Takaoka City), Takaoka City
Mountainous region of Nomi City (Old Tatsunokuchi-machi)
Yamanaka-onsen Hot Spring, and Kayano known for the Great Sugi (cedar) of Kayano, Kaga City
Inokuchi, Katsuyama City
The 'Bon goya gyoji' (an event at a hut in the Bon season) 'Kitone' (a call made to the deceased, meaning "Please come back") in Kisakata-machi, Nikaho City:
Registered as nation's selected intangible properties of folk culture in March 2008