Bon dances honor past, embrace present

WAIMEA — On Friday the first of nine bon dances will launch this year’s calendar of celebrations hosted by the Kaua‘i Buddhist Council.

Waimea Higashi Hongwanji will host the inaugural 2011 bon dance starting at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Hisako Nitta of Kekaha, born 94 years ago in Makaweli Camp 1, is one of the church’s elders who are busy preparing for the weekend, said Gerald Hirata, president of the Kaua‘i Soto Zen Temple, host of the June 10-11 bon dance.

“My father wrote in his journal that he came to Hawai‘i on the last boat leaving Japan,” Nitta said in an interview with Hirata. “He thought he was heading to Hilo, but somehow he ended up on Kaua‘i where he worked for the Hawaiian Sugar Co. at Makaweli.”

Kelly Ball, born and raised in California, arrived on Kaua‘i in 1977, eventually finding his way to the Waimea Higashi Hongwanji doorsteps, just a short walk from his former residence in Mill Camp.

A professional gardener for 34 years, Ball created and now maintains the Japanese garden located at the Higashi temple.

“The oldest Buddhist temple on Kaua‘i is tucked away less than a hundred yards off the main highway in Waimea, in the shadow of a towering dilapidated metal facade which was once a sugar mill,” Hirata said. “Most people driving through Waimea town will not see the tiny Higashi Hongwanji temple, established in 1899, unless a turn is taken onto a dirt road to an area known as Mill Camp.”

Hirata said honoring the old and embracing the new is what many temples like the Waimea Higashi Hongwanji are doing to serve a broader population base on Kaua‘i.

Buddhist temples once thrived in the island’s Japanese communities in Hawai‘i, catering to the religious, cultural and social needs of immigrant sugar workers such as Nitta’s father, Hirata said.

He credits Dr. George Tanabe, a former professor of religion at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa, in describing the island’s “plantation Buddhism” and correlates its membership decline with the demise of the sugar industry and the disappearing plantation communities.

This was made evident in 2010 when the West Kaua‘i Hongwanji Mission, Koloa Temple, celebrated its final bon dance in the same year it observed its centennial.

Nitta, in her 94 years, has seen many changes.

As a young girl, she looked forward to the bon dance festivities where she would dress in kimono and revel in the rituals of song, dance and music of her ancestors.

But at last year’s bon dance, Nitta shared her concerns about the changing etiquette of the younger generation in their casual attitude and attire in the dance ring.

“There’s too much left uncovered on the top and on the bottom,” she said of the relaxed dress style of island youth. “Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but…”

Evelyn Masaki of the Kaua‘i Soto Zen Temple in Hanapepe said if you attend any church service on any island, of any denomination, would you dress in a halter top and short-shorts, or a tank top and cutoffs?

“We must remember that bon dance is a cultural and religious festival which is held on temple grounds so there should be a degree of respect and decorum,” Masaki said.

Dance “towels” is another area where change has been impacted.

Some dance numbers require a tenugui, a light cotton fabric about a yard long folded several times to a width of about two inches and stenciled with various designs and the name of the temple. These were given free to dancers at one time, but with rising costs, many temples will ask for a small donation when dispensing the towels.

Hirata, a member of the Kaua‘i Buddhist Council, is encouraging people to bring a towel from previous years to recycle, or reuse, for dancing.

The origin of bon, or o-bon, took place when one of Buddha’s disciples danced with joy when his mother’s spirit was released from suffering.

Today, the bon dance festival in Hawai‘i has evolved into an important cultural event with includes food booths serving a wide variety of items reflecting the melding of the plantation cultures and an assortment of game booths for children.

Nitta had hip replacement surgery about 10 years ago, but her love of the dance and her passion for the festival still endures.

Restricted in her movements from the surgery, Nitta spends most of her time helping in the food booth.

“Last summer when I heard the music, I felt I had to dance,” Nitta said. “I asked my friend, Pat Tanimoto, to stay in front of me. I got into the ring and danced.”

• Dennis Fujimoto, photographer and staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 253) or dfujimoto@


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