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Friday, June 3, 2016


There is a five day period in Japan--August 12 to 16--when the souls of the dead come back to visit the living.  Well, most Japanese don't believe so, but cultural priorities provide a good reason for a party.  Going back in time, this all started as dark imagery of hanging upside down.  In time, the story evolved merely to visiting spirits.

Now, Bon, or O-bon, using the honorific, is when many communities sponsor a mostly fun festival, usually at a Buddhist temple, accompanied by fire ceremonies and the like.  Sweets, drinks and an assortment of Japanese dishes are offered to ancestors, and also sold to participants and tourists.  Graves are also visited and cleaned.

The bon-odori (dance) circles a central raised platform, called the yagura, on top of which a lead singer belts out the song, accompanied by lutes, samisen and, especially taiko (large) drums.  Some sites float out lighted lanterns into some seabody, somewhat like what Honolulu did this past Memorial Day.  Honolulu magazine provided a Hawaii Bon Dance 101 article (read it to answer the following puzzle so that you know what to wear and what to do when you get there):

I've been to Daimonji, the #1 obon festival in Japan, which occurs in Kyoto, this year on August 16.  Here, a 650 foot long bonfire:

#2 is Awa Odori in Tokushima on Shikoku Island:

Throughout the USA, various Japanese communities hold bon-odori festivals.  Americans of Japanese descent on the mainland have a more uptight attitude because they are always in the bare minority.  Their experience in World War II also served to fractionate them.  These gatherings historically served as their social means to band together and show some pride.  While time has healed most wounds, the tradition of bon dances carries on.  Some of them, as in Santa Barbara, extend over many weeks during weekends.

Hawaii is a whole different thing when it comes to bon odori.  Kauai is the first to begin, at the Lihue Hongwanji Mission tonight at six.  Tomorrow:
  • Oahu:  Hawaii Plantation Village in Waipahu, with food booths opening at 4:30 PM.
  • Hawaii Island:  Hawaii Japanese Center in Hilo, with an exhibit at 10 AM, followed by the bon dance from Noon.
  • Maui:  Lahaina Shingon Mission at 6:30 PM

But in Hawaii, the bon odori season then continues every weekend through mid-September.  Virtually every Buddhist temple puts on something.  I count 80 such bon dances this year.  If it's food you want:

  • grilled mochi
  • yakisoba, 
  • oden (right)
  • hot dogs, hamburgers
  • grilled corn on the cob

  • jook (rice porridge)
  • andagi (rightan Okinawa deep-fried greasy sphere, the middle of a large donut)
  • tsukemono (preserved vegetables)
  • spam musubi
  • shave ice
  • saimin   
Of course, the dance is the attraction, and some large festivals have concentric circles.  While originally conceived in the 6th century (in Japan), current music has incorporated Japanese pop, the two-step, Pokemon and electric slide.  Recorded music is beginning to take over.  Most locales offer practice sessions before the event, and some go just for the Bondancersize.  Most are free, but Honpa Hongwanji (left) charges $10/month.

My favorites are Tanko Bushi, the Coal Miners Song, which began in Fukuoka in 1932, and Soran Bushi, from Hokkaido.  Learn Zumpa Ondo and Dai Tokyo Ondo, plus watch a simple course on how to dance.

Finally, if you see any typos of Japanese words, my computer sometimes, without my knowledge, overnight, changes words to conform to what it considers to be proper grammar.


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