Obon, Hawaiian Style

A bon dance in Honolulu

Hawaii is this beautiful, magical, wonderful place unlike any other. The lush green mountains, crystal clear water, and near perfect year round weather rightfully draw people from around the world, but what really makes it special is the way that it brings together different cultures and traditions and makes them its own.

One of the best examples of this is the imported Japanese celebration of obon. In Japan, obon is a three-day Buddhist festival held in mid-August meant to honor the ancestors. People return to their hometowns, clean their ancestral graves, and participate in bon odori, a dance festival to welcome back ancestors' spirits. As with many older traditions, bon odori has been declining in popularity among the younger generations in recent years. 

Bon odori in a village in Japan

In Hawaii, things are a little different. Rather than just being a weekend-long event, bon dances are held at alternating locations (mostly Buddhist temples) every weekend for the entirety of July and August (and a bit beyond that as well). While most of them do hold ceremonies before the festivities start, they're primarily nondenominational and are popular summer events among locals of all ethnicities and cultures.

The focal point of bon dances is, of course, the dancing. At the center of a large, open space stands the red and white yagura, a raised platform from which either recorded or live music plays (generally both at different points of the night). People dance around it with set motions to traditional bon dance-specific songs, joining in and opting out as they please. Because of the choreographed nature of the dances, there's always a group of people who know the movements by heart who are leading the charge, so while many people will often come to know the dances to their favorite songs over the course of the years, if there's a song you don't know, you can just look around and see what everyone else is doing. Some of the songs use small hand towels and fans as props, but if you don't have those, you can just motion along as if you do. 

Bon dance in Hawaii
Bon dance in Hawaii

However, they wouldn't be as popular as they are if they were only about the dancing. Another integral piece of bon dances is the food! The main food sold is prepared by the temples' congregations to raise money for the church. Some things you can expect to see at any bon dance are spam musubi, fried noodles, curry and rice plates, and shave ice. Most will also have vendors from the community selling other specialty foods (and sometimes non-food items) as well.

Shave ice in Hawaii

I've done martial arts since I was young, and all of the dojos I've practiced at have been affiliated with Buddhist temples. So when bon dance season came around every year, my family and I would volunteer at our temple's festival. The timing worked out perfectly this year so that I'd be able to attend the one I normally volunteer at, though this time I came as a normal attendee. Coming straight from Japan, I almost hesitated to go. After all, it was my first night back, and I just came from being surrounded by Japanese culture - didn't I want a more Hawaiian welcome? 

But what could be more Hawaiian than this piece of culture that's been preserved and yet is completely unique? What could be more Hawaiian than annual tradition surrounded by friends and family? It was the perfect welcome home.