Bon Odori

Obon is a Buddhist holiday that bridges my experiences in Japan and Hawaii, as the tradition is celebrated in both island nations.

Japanese immigrants came to Hawaii and the Western US in the early 20th century and brought their Buddhist religion and Japanese traditions with them. People from many parts of Japan migrated to Hawaii to work the sugar plantations in hopes of a better life. It was a harsh new reality in Hawaii as plantation owners segregated the workers - Philippinos, Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese - into to seperate camps to keep them from forming unions, exacted long hours of work in the fields under the supervision of men on horseback with whips, and charged high prices for necessities at the company stores.

Yet the religious and cultural traditions lived on, and later generations reaped the fruit of their ancestors' sacrifices, becoming leading teachers, engineers, politicians, and at least one astronaut (Elison Onizuka who died in the Challenger disaster). A beautiful Buddhist tradition that lives on in Hawaii today is the Bon Odori (Bon Dance).

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As a Dharma school teacher (Buddhist equivilant to a Christian Sunday school teacher) for many years in Hawaii's Hongwanji missions, I have looked forward to dancing at Bon Odori every year for nearly two decades now. I am looking forward to experiencing it for the first time in Japan this year.

Bon originated in India and can be traced to a Buddhist sutra that tells the story of Mogallana, a disciple of Buddha who, in meditation, saw his deceased mother suffering in the realm of Hungry Ghosts. He tried giving her food but it turned to flames. Buddha advised him to engage in a "jishi," or retreat, and make an offering for his fellow monks. This done, he saw his mother released from suffering and he danced for joy. The tradition was carried with the spread of Buddhism, through China to Korea and Japan.

Over time, new beliefs were added (Buddhism is an adaptive religion which accepts being modified by local beliefs), such as the idea that the ghosts of ancestors came to visit at this time, so lights were put up to guide and greet them. Today's Bon dances have paper lanterns strung over the dancers and some ocean side temples set lanterns, with the names of deceased relatives written on them, afloat on the ocean.

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In Japan, this holiday is celebrated in mid August, and is a time of vacations. Dances are held at temples around the country. Each district or region has its own special dance or dances. Dancers wear light summer kimonos called yukata, or just pants and a happi coat. Some dances also call for a small cotton bath towel or a fan as well and in Hawaii, the temples give cotton towels to each dancer as they enter the ring. The dancers go around a central tower, called the yagura, where the musicians are located, and dance in concentric ovals or circles. Permit me to reveal a secret - the drummers take breaks and go into the covered lower part of the yagura to have a beer or some sake. Paper lanterns illuminate the area. Experienced dancers are usually in the center ring so that those in the outer rings can follow their movements. The dances consist of repetitions of steps and arm movements which can be 8 to 16 bars long with many different movements in each set.

In Hawaii and in many cities along the West coast of the US and Canada, Buddhist temples celebrate the holiday with traditional Japanese style dances accompanied by the booming taiko drums and flute. The dance is preceded by a service dedicated to those temple members who have passed on in the previous year. On each of the major Hawaiian islands, the many temples of every sect, have agreed to hold dances at each temple in turn over a period of several weekends, with the members of each temple attending the dances of the others, making for a summer long celebration that lasts from mid-June to the end of August. There are one or two dances every weekend and many of us would try to be at every one of them. This also helps the temples raise more money through sales at their food and game booths.

An interesting difference from Japan's dances, which often feature just the local dance and perhaps one or two others, is that US temples perform many dances from various parts of Japan, since the immigrants came from many prefectures and cities, each with a different dance. New songs are added every year and some are quite modern featuring jazz arrangements and even a samba. Sometimes the music is performed live by local clubs with taiko (big drums) and flutes, but most of the songs now days are recorded with just the taiko drums being live.
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My friend Shane at Kahului, Maui (an airport security guard by day) wearing a happi coat, pounds out the rhythm on a taiko drum.

In the USA, you can find Bon Odori in Vancouver, Seattle, San Fransisco, San Jose, Southern California, Phoenix, and even Chicago - as well as throughout the Hawaiian Islands. There are usually food booths, games for kids to play, and everyone is invited to join in regardless of religious or ethnic background. If you don't have a happi coat, most temples have extra to lend. If you ever have the chance, go to a Bon dance and enjoy the music, colorful costumes, food, and just plain fun.

Odori mashoo! - Let's dance!


The Moody Minstrel said...

The little town of Vale, near the Snake River in arid Eastern Oregon, is also famous for the Bon Odori. For historical reasons (that aren't altogether pleasant), there is a large concentration of Japanese-Americans there, hence the dance. It is also apparently one of very few towns of any size in the U.S. that sports a Shinto shrine.

I might also add that a Bon Odori is held every summer at my daughter's elementary school, which is just down the street from our house. It is pretty much a child-parent event, with the kids doing the dancing and the drumming and the parents running the festival booths.

Incidentally, during the first summer after moving into this house, when my daughter was only a year old, we heard the drumming going on, so my wife and I put on yukata (traditional dress) and went to have a look. We were the only ones there in yukata, and it really made quite an impression on everybody...especially since I'm a foreigner. We got lots of compliments. The next year, a few more people were in yukata, and the numbers increased little by little over the years after that for a while, but then it seemed to backlash a bit. I have to admit that I did without the yukata the last few times I went mainly for the sake of convenience. Maybe I should try to kick-start the tradition again.

Don Snabulus said...

Great tradition! Thanks for sharing.

Labaki said...

Hey, how can I know about the Bon Odori in Vancouver? Do you know if there's a website or something?

Pandabonium said...

Labaki - you might check with Vancouver Buddhist Temple - they have one every year. Website for them is http://vancouverbuddhisttemple.com/