"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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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".
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.