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Bon Odori Under the Moon In Wailuku

August 4, 2013 - Ray Tsuchiyama

See Video: Wailuku Hongwanji Temple Bon Odori (2012)

See Video: Lahaina Jodo Mission Bon Odori (2010)

Obon (or just Bon) is a Japanese Buddhist custom to honor the spirits of one's ancestors and became ingrained in Japanese culture (with less religious overtones) by the early 16th century. In modern-day Japan, especially with the movement of so many people to large urban centers like Tokyo and Osaka, Obon is now a summer family reunion holiday (most places celebrate Obon around August 15 and many large Japanese companies have week-long Obon holidays) during which city dwellers brave packed trains and bumper-to-bumper freeway traffic to return to ancestral family small towns and villages.

For some people they hurry first to clean their ancestors' graves (I can go my mother’s family grave site in an expansive municipal cemetery in Sapporo, Hokkaido or to my in-law’s tiny grave site in Nezu, an older part of Tokyo, and a tiny place that surprisingly survived the Pacific War bombing).

Also, Japanese go to neighborhood Buddhist temples to participate in a community dance (anybody is welcome), usually in a circle (although in the Tokushima region on Shikoku Island the dancers are in long fast-moving lines and analogous to a Brazilian samba). This dance is called the Bon-Odori.

“Bon” is a Japanese shortened form of a Sanscrit word for “great suffering”; “Odori” is Japanese for “dance”). Bon dancing originates from the story of a Buddha’s disciple in India named Maha Maudgalyayana (the latter is the Sanskrit name; in Japanese: “Mokuren”).

Mokuren “saw” that his deceased mother had fallen into the Realm of Hungry Ghosts (a kind of harsh spiritual landscape, one of many “hells” in Buddhist teachings). He asked the Buddha if he could release his mother from her suffering from this terrible place.

The Buddha instructed him to make offerings to the Buddhist monks who had completed their summer retreat. By chanting, meditating, and making offerings, Mokuren attained the insight of his mother’s life’s unselfishness and the many sacrifices that she had made for him and family , and also secured her release from this “hell”. Overcome with joy and happiness, Mokuren danced with joy.

So this “summer” dancing comes from a joyful realization of love and piety: the "Bon Dance", a deep remembrance of past family members, departed ancestors and their sacrifices for the current living in the material world.

There are many songs and music styles for the Bon Odori, and may be different in the north of Japan, like in Hokkaido there is the "Soran Bushi” or southward in Tokushima in Shikoku Island there is the very famous "Awa Odori," or "Fool's Dance”. Even today tourists from throughout Japan visit Tokushima just to watch the “Awa Odori” – I was mesmerized by just watching on television:

See Video: Tokushima Awa Odori

Typically, the Bon Dance dancers circle around a high wooden scaffold made especially for the festival called a yagura, where musicians and singers often perfrom the Obon music (the yagura is visible, draped in red-and-white bunting, in the video of both Wailuku Hongwanji and Lahaina Jodo Mission Bon Dances).

How dancers go around the yagura depends on the song and movements, since some dances proceed clockwise, and some dances proceed counter-clockwise. Some temple “dance clubs” have dancers who practice all year to participate in Bon Odori, typically most just hop in and follow the movements.

Although up to the 1970s most of the Bon Odori dancers were ethnically Nikkei; the percentage (with the demographics changes throughout Hawai'i) of dancers at this summer’s Maui Bon Odori who are Nikkei is closer to a third or less (Hawaiian hula probably has a similar percentage of Native Hawaiians; this infusion and inclusivity created a renaissance in Hawaiian music and dance during the past 40 years).

Many non-Nikkei have energetically joined Bon dancing clubs and have acquired Japanese yukata or a summer lightweight kimono and special sandals, and also have uchiwa or fans (which are used in many songs for group rhythmic dynamics). For some young people, the dancing is highly exotic, with movements similar to a slower, stylized hip-hop.

At the Wailuku Hongwanji Temple yesterday evening, the dancing (see photo) was quite festive with a wide range of people, ethnicities, ages, and even religions (a Buddhist service always precedes the Bon Odori, but the dancing is open to all, a community event). One very popular sale item (for fund-raising, since the Temple supports a vibrant Boy Scout troop) is the chow fun, a local noodle dish that I remember fondly from my childhood in Kalihi-Palama (see line of patient chow fun fans in the photo).

There are four more Bon Odori left in this short summer (the dancing season begins in June with crowded scenes in Lahaina, Up-Country, and Kahului). They are at the following temples (if interested, you can call the temple for exact times or view Internet Maui event calendars):

August 10 Kahului Jodo Mission

August 17 Paia Rinzai Zen Temple

August 23/24 Lahaina Hongwanji Temple

August 31 Kula Shofukuji Temple

These temples (and many others on Maui) are the heart of Nikkei Maui, continuing an old Japanese tradition that made my grandparents so much happier, evoking a link back to their town in Kumamoto Prefecture on the island of Kyushu – a place both my grandparents departed from and never returned once during their lives on Maui.


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Wailuku Hongwanji Temple dancing -- see "yagura" in center of the dancers.