During Obon, many regions in Japan have folk dances. These folk dances are called bon odori. The purpose of these dances are to, at the beginning of the Bon festival, welcome the spirits and at the end to bid them farewell. This tradition is said to have started in the later years of the Muromachi period. The kind of dance varies from area to area. People wearing yukata (summer kimono) go to the neighborhood bon odori and dance around a yagura stage. Anyone can participate in bon odori. Just join the circle and imitate what others are doing.
Bon Odori is said to originate from the story of Mokuren. Mokuren was a disciple of the Buddha, who used his paranormal powers to look upon his deceased mother. He found out that she had fallen into the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and was suffering. After seeing this he went to the Buddha and asked how he could release his mother from this realm. Buddha told him to make offerings to the many priests who had just completed their summer retreat, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month. Mokuren did this and, thus, saw his mother's release. He also began to see the true nature of her past unselfishness and the many sacrifices that she had made for him. He was so happy because of his mother's release and grateful for his mother's kindness so he danced with joy. From this dance of joy comes Bon Odori, a time in which ancestors and their sacrifices are remembered and appreciated.
A typical Bon dance involves people lining up in a circle around a high wooden scaffold made especially for the festival called a yagura. The yagura is generally also used as the bandstand for the musicians and singers of the Obon music. Some dances proceed clockwise, and some dances proceed counter-clockwise around the yagura. Some dances reverse during the dance, though most do not. At times, people face the yagura and move towards and away from it. Still some dances, such as the Kagoshima Ohara dance, and the Tokushima Awa Odori, simply proceed in a straight line through the streets of the town.
The dance of a region can depict the area's history and specialization. For example, the movements of the dance of the Tankō Bushi (the "coal mining song") of old Miike Mine in Kyūshū show the movements of miners, e.g. digging, cart pushing, lantern hanging, etc. All dancers perform the same dance sequence in unison.
Several different implements maybe used during the dances and vary by region. Some dances involve the use of different kinds of fans, others involve the use of tenugui (small towels) which may have colorful designs. Some require the use of kachi-kachi (small wooden clappers) during the dance.
The music can be songs specifically pertinent to the spiritual message of Obon, or local min'yo folk songs. Hokkaidō, or northern Japan, is known for a folk-song known as "Soran Bushi." The song "Tokyo Ondo" takes its namesake from the capital of Japan. "Goshu Ondo" is a folk song from Shiga prefecture. Residents of the Kansai area will recognize the famous "Kawachi ondo." Tokushima in Shikoku is very famous for its "Awa Odori," or "fool's dance," and in the far south, one can hear the "Ohara Bushi" of Kagoshima, Kyūshū.