Let's Bon Dance!

Let’s Bon Dance!

Traditionally held in Japan to honor the spirits of those who have passed on, Obon Dance Festivals in Hawaii have become a highly popular cultural celebration of Japanese and Okinawan ethnic roots. In Japan, the Obon lasts a long weekend, but in Hawaii, Bon Dance Season stretches the entire summer, with dances held every weekend from June through September at various Buddhist Temples around the islands.

In Japan, community associations typically sponsor bon dances. Here in Hawaii the events are usually staged at Buddhist temples, the keepers of Japanese culture. Although you might think the atmosphere would be serious, the whole air of a bon dance is joyful—good times for all participants, people from all cultures and ethnicities, local families and tourists alike. Even though they are held at temples, most of the dances are not religious--they’re more like folk dances.

Usually held in the evening, everyone is invited to join the simple, repetitive movements accompanied by traditional Japanese music. Colorful paper lanterns are hung to help beckon the spirits of the ancestors, and taiko drummers keep a happy beat that is hard to resist. Aside from the dancing, the smell of traditional foods like andagi emanating from food booths welcomes everyone to join. Sometimes craft booths are set up as well, offering traditional and local handicrafts and mementos.

The dancing usually begins a little before dark, and if you know nothing about the movements, you can just follow the dancers in the inner circles. The dances start off slowly and gain momentum. You don’t need to wear a yukata or happi coat to participate, although they are often available for sale at the site—casual wear is fine. A yagura, or freestanding tower, is the focus at the center of the dance, where the musicians will take turns playing the traditional bamboo flutes, hand gongs, shamisen (a three-stringed instrument like a guitar), and of course, taiko drums.

Some events end with a toro nagashi, a moving and spectacular occasion where candlelit lanterns are placed in the ocean to guide the spirits back to their world. You cannot fail to be moved by the sight of hundreds of small flames floating on the sea.An evening-long event can be exhausting, but fulfilling and very enjoyable. Next season, why don’t you join? There’s bound to be a Bon Dance held near you. You might meet some new friends and become a convert!

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