Obon Furusato (festival) 2006

For those not familiar, here is quick explanation of Obon by my dear friend, Reverend Daien Soga, minister of the Kahului Maui Hongwanji (Buddhist temple):

"The Urabanna (Sanskrit Ullambana) sutra tells a story involving Mogallana, one of the most trusted disciples of the Shakyamuni Buddha, the enlightened form of Siddhartha Gautama, whom Buddhists believe lived more than 2,000 years ago and founded the religion."

"Mogallana, who had super-human powers, had a vision of his deceased mother suffering in the fiery realm of hungry ghosts, paying the price for her selfishness."

"Troubled by this, Mogallana asked the Shakyamuni Buddha for help and advice and was told to perform a charitable act in memory of his mother. He offered food to Buddhist disciples and when he checked on this mother again, she had 'disappeared' from the realm."

Other references say Mogallana danced for joy, which became the bon odori or "bon dance".

"O-bon traditions traveled to Hawaii with the Japanese immigrants and was embedded in the Hongwanji tradition in Japan at the time."

"There is a non-Buddhist, folk-celebration aspect to bon dances as well. The tradition, which originated in China, views bon season as a time to party with the spirits. The gates to heaven are opened with the paths to hometowns lit by lanterns, and a festive party is held – which includes lots of dancing. After the three days are up, the spirits are ushered home and the gates to heaven close."

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Sunday, K and I went to the local temple to clean the graves of her father's parents and an uncle and make offerings for Obon. We rode our bikes down as last year I walked and K drove her car and we found the distance way to short to justify a car and the load of water and other things enough to make walking a bit of a chore. So we reached a balance with the bikes. The Shingon temple bulletin board was decorated with posters for Obon and Osegaki (Osegaki being an offering of food with which I was not familiar Pure Land temples, such as the Hongwanji which I belong, do not perform it). The priest was on the steps of the temple cleaning the altar incense burner in preparation for a service.

Tuesday, the weather turned a bit wet due to an approaching typhoon. In the afternoon it rained off and on and I was worried that the night's dance would be cancelled. Late in the afternoon we heard some fireworks go off at the park, just a mile and a half from here - a sign that things were going ahead as scheduled. K was pessimistic and not eager to go, but in late afternoon the rain stopped. I told her about the time on Maui when my family and I danced at Makawao Hongwanji (on the slopes of Mt. Haleakala) and it rained. Some of us went on dancing in the rain, but eventually we just moved the whole dance into the social hall and danced indoors. What's a little rain? So, K and I went together by car instead of by bicycle as we did last year when the weather was good. It was humid all evening, even foggy, but it didn't rain. The turn out was lower compared to last year, but there were still lots of people, and we had a good time after all.

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The dance was held in Hamanasu park which I have written of before. This photo shows the view of the park, and coast, from the park's observation tower. The small clearing in the lower center of the picture is where the dance was held. The trees block some of the view and make it look smaller than it is. Actually, there is a baseball diamond in the clearing.

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From the parking lot there were lanterns (chochin) strung along the path through the trees to light the way. Two mini-fire trucks were parked in the middle of the wooded area over the stream with a contingent of volunteer fire fighters as insurance for the fireworks display to come.

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The center tower for the dance - the Yagura - was trimmed in lanterns and had a raised platform around it for the lead dancers and drummers. This would allow the other dancers in wider circles around the yagura to see them and follow their steps and hand movements.

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The schedule had been upset a bit by the rains, but after some entertainment in the form of an an "Enka" singer (Japanese folk singer) and taiko drumming club, the dance got under way.
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Fans like the one K is holding in the picture were provided to the participants. Unlike Hawaii, where due to the diversity of the Japanese community, there are many different dances, here we just repeated three. One was a traditional dance of Kashima. Another was "Tanko Bushi" - the coal miner's song - which almost everyone who goes to Bon Odori knows. The last, which we danced the most often last night, was a new Kashima City dance, created last year for the celebration of the tenth anniversary of Kashima town and Ohno village merging to become "Kashima City".

To hear some Bon Dance music, click below. This is not the specific music we danced to Tuesday night, but is fairly representative of the genre. The song is "Dai Hiroshima Ondo", one of my favorites I used to dance to in Hawaii. Also, Rev. Soga is originally from Hiroshima, so this is for you Soga Sensei. You'll just have to imagine the beat being kept by big booming taiko drums.

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Where's Pandabonium? Click the picture for an englargement that points to me.

So we danced away for well over an hour as others watched, ate, or sipped (ha!) beer. During a break in the dancing, people came around with cold canned ocha (green tea) to refresh the dancers. One of the nice things about these Bon Dances vs the ones in the US is the use of live singers rather than recorded voices. One of them, who was also dancing, was actually a man, dressed as a woman. This is old stuff in Japanese entertainment, but still surprised me when it dawned on me that (as Crocodile Dundee might say) "that sheila's a guy".

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Pandabonium dancing. This is my 1989 Hongwanji Hawaii Centennial Happi Coat. My daughters were in the state Hongwanji choir that year, so it is special to me.

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Foggy fireworks.

When the dance was over, there were fireworks and a drawing for prizes. We left as the fireworks began. Due to the fog, they took on a strange, ghostly air. The noise was loud as ever, but the light subdued.

A funny coincidence happened just before this dance. A week ago I found an old high school friend through the internet. My fellow trombone playing buddy, Mark, lives near the coast of California between LA and San Francisco. In the course of our emails I mentioned Obon and he informed me that he goes to a dance near him every year to watch the dancers in their beautiful kimonos, enjoy the food, and the bonsai trees that the local temple puts on display. They had just been to one last week. There are temples up and down the West Coast from Vancouver to San Diego, so perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised.

So, if you get the chance where ever you are, take in a bon dance, and don't be afraid to join in the fun, even if you have two left feet like me.


Don Snabulus said...

Another fine post. The foggy fireworks picture is an especially striking one.

Peceli and Wendy's Blog said...

Thanks for the cultural stories such as this one - because our world is so rich if we just open our eyes. The music didn't work for me - I mean it didn't play! In a former life - about ten years ago - I was an ethnomusicologist, so madly collected 'world music' samples as well as Fijian chants. etc.

Lrong said...

Tanko Bushi... nice song... and the one playing on your blog too...

Pandabonium said...

Thanks Snabby. I made about ten attempts to get the one fireworks pic. The delay of the camera required that I press the shutter when I heard the mortar and just point at where I thought it would be in the sky. Anyway, it was an erie effect to watch.

Sorry about that Wendy. Maybe it is your connection speed, or the size of the file. "ethnomusicologist" - there's a mouthful. I'd like to hear Bush try to include that one in a speech. hehehe
You might try this page for a sample - it uses midi files and there is one of Tanko Bushi. Bon Dance Music

Lrong - glad you enjoyed it. I imagine you've seen a few bon dances in your 19 years of living in Japan.

PinkPanther said...

Now, I knew more about Obon Festival, thanks for sharing PandaB.
Nice Bon Dance Music, I like it. Ooops, dunno Japanese, what does he sing?
You know, that Foggy fireworks photo looked like the tail of a peafowl. Hey, what if “Pandabonium dancing” pic. transformed as a vedio, sounds much matching for this post. *_*

Anonymous said...

dear Pandabonium, what a delightful entry which can only enriches our imagination and sensitivities to other cultural beauties just waiting for others like me to appreciated and assimilated it. Thank you. Stephennah

Pandabonium said...

PinkPanther - most dance songs just talk about dancing, but this one has a bit more to it. The beginning part says come to Hiroshima and dance. Then it talks about the Inland Sea being calm in the morning, the bountiful seafood, etc. After that it says that "seeds from the ashes grew" and became green, and Hiroshima became the symbol of peace. So it is a more meaningful song that most bon dance songs.

Stephannah - I am so happy that this post brought you joy. It is indeed enriching for us to experience the diverse and beautiful arts and culture in our world.

The Moody Minstrel said...

My neighborhood used to host a Bon dance every year over at the nearby elementary school. My family used to go every year, and I'd be the only adult male there dressed in a yukata (for which I always got lots of compliments, but no one else ever followed my example). Last year they suddenly canceled it with no explanation, and this year it wasn't held at all.

No Bon for this minstrel.

We did do the business at the family graves, though, so I guess we still had the main event.

Pandabonium said...

Moody - K tells me the local temple used to have one as well, but it has been a while since they've put one on. I was happy to see that most people at Hamanasu had at least a happi coat (like me) - not that people shouldn't join in dressed as they are (like K). In Hawaii almost everyone is dressed up for it and most temples keep a supply of happi coats (usually made from bon dance towels stitched together) to loan to visitors. Of course there one can find a dance every weekend all summer long. I kind of miss that. As you say, paying attention to those who predeceased us is the point.