For some, Fourth of July signals the kick-off for summer. In the Hawaiian Islands, however, summer begins with the opening dance of obon season.
The bon-odore, or bon dances, start this weekend at the Hanapepe Hongwanji Temple. They are just one aspect of Bon Festival season — a practice that arrived in the islands when Japanese immigrants came to work on the plantations.
This Buddhist tradition of obon has its roots in legend. During meditation, a disciple of Buddha’s named Mokuren was able to see that his deceased mother had been reborn among the hungry ghosts of hell for having denied eating meat one time. She was damned to hang upside-down over food and water. When she’d try to eat, her food would burst into flame.
Mokuran was able to pay his mother’s penance through diligent practice of compassion and charity, thus able to gain enough merit to set his mother free. Upon her return to the world of the living, he danced for joy holding a bon, or round tray, heaped with food.
The revelry of dance, music, food and games that makes the obon season such a joyous occasion reunites family, friends and the spirits of the dead during the festival.
Each weekend for the next two months the community will have an opportunity to attend a dance on Friday or Saturday night somewhere on the island. Temples set up gaming booths, food stalls and a circle of chairs that create an arena for dancers. In the center of the circle is a wooden tower two stories high with steps traveling up one side to a platform. The entire structure is cloaked in palm fronds with strings of colorful lanterns spiraling out like spokes of a wheel.
Before the dancing begins, the temple’s reverend ascends the steps of the platform to chant the names of community members who have died in the past year. When he concludes, the dancers are invited to enter the circle.
Most dancers wear either a full length kimono or its informal summer equivalent, a yukata, a light cotton garment. The movement around the circle is a walk more then a dance. Western dance tends to originate in the hips and feet while the bon dances emphasize the arms and hands. The pace is even and slow with occasional skips and turns. The motion is in the rising current of arms or the gentle patting of the hands. Every age is represented — young mothers are followed by their children, kupuna in silken kimono or even teenage boys wearing traditional robes over board shorts.
The music coming from giant speakers is accompanied by local taiko drummers who also perform during intermission. The festivities usually go on until 11 p.m.
Arrive hungry for some local grinds like Portuguese fry bread, grilled meats, saimen or flying saucers, which are circular meat sandwiches seared in an iron.
The bon dances will continue through mid-August, culminating with the lantern festival where ancestors are ushered back to the underworld on the current of the Wailua River.