The town of Hanapepe comes alive with hundreds of lanterns (chochin) decorating the temple grounds. Traditional Japanese song, music, taiko (drumming) and folk dancing will be featured. Delicious festival foods will gratify the appetite, while cultural displays enlighten. Game booths will provide amusement for the children. Colorful intermission performances will showcase traditions of the past. The Buddhist memorial services at the temple honor the deceased
What Bon Dance means to me
This article was published in The Garden Island, Friday August 14, 2009, written by Gerald Hirata
Obon is an important annual observance of Japanese tradition, together with Oshogatsu (New Year’s Day). One ushers in the new year while the other starts the second half of the year. The bon odori, a Buddhist folk dance performed outdoors around a yagura (raised platform), has distinctive music, while colorful lanterns strung around the platform create a festive mood. Japanese customs however, acquired new observances when Obon came to Hawai‘i, adding food booths and game booths that are now a vital part of the local festivity. As we busily prepare for the upcoming festival this weekend in Hanapepe, I remind myself of what Obon means to me.
I have many memories while growing up in McBryde Sugar Plantation’s Camps Two and Three where the old Zenshuji temple was the gathering place for all of our social, cultural and religious activities. Summertime was Obon season and on Kaua‘i it meant a continuous celebration that extended from mid-June to mid-August.
Weeks before the event, the women started the food preparation in the community hall kitchen where the spirit was one of a busy school cafeteria. The men were out tending the temple grounds mowing the lawn, trimming the hedges, setting up the yagura and the ring for the dancers, in addition to the booths for the festival. The temple itself underwent meticulous cleaning from top to bottom.
During this time, at my grandfather’s insistence, the whole family would do a haka mairi (gravesite visitation) with flowers and offerings to our deceased ancestors. We’d pour water over the gravestones, burn incense, offer food and our prayers. When both sets of grandparents died, it meant special trips to the Port Allen and Kapa‘a cemeteries. Gravesite and temple visits are part of what I do today in order to honor deceased relatives and it attains added meaning during the Obon season.
Traditionally my Buddhist upbringing taught me that the ancestral spirits come home to visit with their family and feast together at Obon. The lanterns help guide the spirits home. Each home has a butsudan, a household shrine, where we presented offerings, as if our ancestors were still with us. It’s a joyous feeling to know that although beloved ones have passed, family ties with the deceased are not severed.
When my father passed away two years ago, my initial thought was that I could be with him again during the next Obon season. I started taking bon odori lessons when the churches offered them in the spring. It was the first time I had made a conscious effort to learn so that I could be part of the circle of dancers.
Coincidentally our church undertook a chochin (lantern) project to honor loved ones and nearly a hundred of them were strung over the temple grounds. I felt that more lanterns would mean a well marked path where anyone, including my Dad, could easily find his way home.
I’ve learned that Obon is a good time to reach out and extend feelings of joyousness to everyone, not the kind of joy or happiness that you get from getting what you desire, but one of awareness. The joy of discovering that there is a selfless giving —such as the love and care exhibited by parents for their children or adults with their parents and grandparents. We should extend this selfless practice of giving to our friends and the rest of the community.
This weekend our temple will have more lanterns strung up. I will be one of many dancers in the ring and I will be dancing with the spirits of my ancestors. I will take time out at the food booths to enjoy a plate lunch, saimin, flying-saucer, mochi and manju. Finally, I would welcome everyone to take part and join in on the festivities.
Gerald Hirata describes himself as a “born again Buddhist,” having returned seven years ago to the temple of his youth. He is a retired, former professor of mathematics and computer science at Kaua’i Community College.
Chochin ( lantern) Project
All of us can celebrate Bon.
The spirit of remembering those who came before you is a universal theme.
At Zenshuji, we are continuing a tradition of displaying colorful pink chochins to remember and honor someone we know.
The Chochin Project supports the temple and ensures that the people we love are always remembered, especially during this special time of the year. The goal is to light up the temple with as many of these colorful lanterns as possible and in turn, fill our hearts with warmth and remembrances.
ANYONE can be honored, not only the deceased! And a person can be honored more than once, if desired by another person. For a one time donation of $25, you can sponsor your own chochin in a persons’ name. Families may also be honored (e.g. Hirata Family, Smith Ohana), or groups (e.g. Vietnam Veterans).
Last year, nearly 200 lanterns were strung around the temple. These chochins are perpetual, so it will be displayed at our Bon Festival every year.
Frequently Asked Questions
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on Bon Dancing
Can I dance, without any training?
Yes, anyone with the spirit and proper attire is encouraged to dance. Just be mindful of others when you enter the dance ring.
What should I wear?
Traditionally, the proper attire is kimono (women), yukata (men), or hapi coat.
Can I dance without the traditional attire?
Yes. However, keep in mind what the elders say about leaving “too much uncovered on the top or the bottom or the middle.” Observe the attire of other dancers and decide by using your own good judgment.
Can I just jump in and follow the other dancers?
Yes. You are more than welcomed to. Honor past traditions and remember that this is a religious and cultural festival where proper etiquette and protocols are appropriate.
Do I get a free dance towel?
Temples’ policy differs so you are encouraged to recycle and reuse your old ones, otherwise a donation may be requested.
Can I learn to dance?
Yes. The individual temples hold dance practice sessions. Call the Buddhist temple near you.
The Kauai Buddhist temples offer Bon dance practices in May. A schedule will be posted here when the dates are finalized.
Currently, a practice session for beginners only are held at the Hanapepe Recreational Center on Thursdays at 6:00 p.m.