Scenes from a Bon Dance

In gatherings of community, Obon celebrates Japanese heritage and the passing on of ancestral traditions.

Text By
Rae Sojot
Images By
Michelle Mishina

With its gardens awash in twilight, the grounds of Nichiren Mission of Hawai‘i resemble a delicate Japanese watercolor. Narrow stone paths wind around hillocks and lichen-mottled boulders. Series of tr stand sentry and illuminate grassy areas. Girls, clad in kimono, walk with hushed steps to a small pond framed by water lilies and cyperus plants.

In the late 19th century, Hawai‘i’s agricultural economy was booming, and the first influx of Japanese immigrants arrived to work on the sugar plantations. They brought with them cherished cultural traditions, including Obon, the Japanese Buddhist custom of honoring the dead. During Obon, families pay respect to their ancestors by making offerings to their family shrines and visiting local temples. It is believed that the first Bon dances in Hawai‘i were held in sugarcane fields and plantation villages.

Today Hawai‘i’s Bon dances serve as cheerful reunions of sorts—yearly communions of family and friends and culture. Despite their underlying senses of solemn tradition, the Bon dance atmosphere is fun and festive. Neighbors gather together to talk story. Friendly obachan (grandmothers) chuckle as they help adjust each other’s obi (sashes). Young children dash off to try their luck with kingyo sukui, the traditional game of scooping goldfish. While many families of Japanese heritage are present to pay homage to their roots, the event is welcoming to all.

Strands of chochin (paper lanterns) radiate from the yagura (tower), adding a warm glow to the gathering crowd at Nichiren Mission of Hawai‘i. The bamboo lanterns, reminders to seek the light, also help welcome home ancestral spirits during Obon. In the mission hall’s foyer, racks of colorful yukata (casual kimonos) and happi (straight-sleeved coats) are available to those eager to embrace traditional attire. Typically made of cotton and worn especially during warmer months, a yukata is different from its silk kimono counterpart, but the array of designs and colors in which it is made is equally beautiful. Chrysanthemums, cherry blossoms, and cranes abound, as well as family crests. Hawai‘i Bon dance dress codes are more casual than ceremonial, more relaxed than reserved.

As traditional dance songs play over the loudspeaker—sometimes with live drum accompaniment—dancers move in step to the music and gracefully clasp their palms, nod, then bow to the lilting sounds of the shakuhachi (bamboo flute) and shamisen (three-stringed instrument). In Japan, Bon Odori music leans toward traditional song; in Hawai‘i, the playlist also includes decidedly more pop variations, to the crowd’s delight.

The smoky aroma of grilled miso cuttlefish sticks rises from a vendor booth. Nearby, andagi sizzle in pans of oil, the fried dough’s popularity evidenced by a long line trailing into the crowd. Though dancing is a big draw for these events held throughout the summer, so are the foods. People indulge in local favorites like musubi, yakisoba, and butter mochi.

A few miles away, in a neighborhood near Waikīkī, a bright summer moon hangs over the Kapahulu Center where the Honolulu Fukushima Bon Dance Club has congregated. Chairs surround the yagura, offering their occupants—parents holding sleepy toddlers in their laps, grandparents looking content and nostalgic—ample views of the sea of dancers before them. It’s a special night for all, and for the ancestors, too, smiling down upon them.

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