What Hawaii’s colorful Obon festival season is all about

Everyone gets into the food and fun of the annual obon dance season, a Japanese Buddhist custom that lasts from June til early September.

If you’ve taken a town or country drive in the Islands on a Friday or Saturday night during the summer, when our weather turns even warmer than usual, it’s likely the sights described in the next paragraph will be wonderfully familiar.

Rings of dancers clad in festive, lightweight yukata kimonos and wraparound happi coats, as well as a few folks in everyday shirts and shorts, on the grounds of a Buddhist temple, swaying in unison around a scaffold tower, sometimes packed with loud, lively musicians and singers. Carried on the night breeze, beneath the inviting glow of chochin paper lanterns and strands of lights, the mouthwatering aroma of grilled teri-beef and chicken skewers, stir-fried noodles, hamburgers and the Okinawan sweet fried dough confection, andagi.

Paper lanterns, or chochin, at an Oahu bon dance.
Photo: Consuela Yokomura

If you haven’t yet experienced any of the above, pull over and park. Bon dance season in Hawaii is in full swing.

Linger on the edge of the Bon Odori, the group dance enacting Japanese folk tales by way of subtle gestures and gentle steps matching the rhythm of live drums and wind instruments, and a self-assured dancer may encourage you to join the group. Even if it’s your first visit to a hongwanji mission or temple, you may want to tune out any inner hesitation and join the dancers as they circle the tower, called a yagura.

Bon Odori participants dance around a yagura at the Moiliili Obon festival, Honolulu’s largest.
Photo: Consuela Yokomura

If you do, Derrick Iwata, an experienced sensei, or teacher, of bon dance on Oahu has a few words of advice.

“If you’re going to join us, just keep moving,” he says. “Do not stop and scratch your head” while trying to figure out dance moves, Iwata adds, almost pleadingly.

The thought of frozen-in-their-tracks newbies holding up hundreds of seasoned Obon festivalgoers taking part in the dance brings a burst of laughter from Iwata. It’s actually OK if you have no idea what you’re doing, or if the fluid moves of bon dancing initially elude you.

“Just walk with the dancers,” says Iwata, his voice reassuring. “You’ll be fine.”

Derrick Iwata, an education and culture specialist at the Japanese Cultural Center
of Hawaii on Oahu, demonstrates a half-moon dance step—a staple in Bon Odori
Photo: David Croxford

The Buddhist custom of Obon, in Hawaii, generally shortened to Bon, honors the spirits of departed family members and ancestors. It is believed that these spirits return during the summer months to visit relatives and friends who are still alive. While the conventional festival of Obon lasts for three days in Japan, with at least three varied starting dates, here in Hawaii the custom has evolved into a three-month summer celebration of spiritual remembrance, cultural heritage and community sharing. The most popular and immediately recognized feature of the observance in the Islands is the Bon Odori community dance.

The covered platform of the two-story yagura is where musicians, singers and speakers address festivalgoers.
Photo: Consuela Yokomura

In Hawaii, bon dance season begins in early June, with individual hongwanji festivities centered around dancing, socializing and the preparing and eating of favorite Island-style dishes and comfort foods continuing for about three hours after sunset. By the time bon dance season ends in September, more than 80 city and country hongwanji temples (many of the Shinshu Buddhist faith) scattered throughout the Islands will have hosted dances, most of them two-night affairs on Fridays and Saturdays.

Typically, there’s no charge to attend a bon dance. Donations offered at a dance choba booth and sales at the ever-popular food booths raise considerable funds for temple upkeep and projects. But the most appealing aspect for Hawaii residents and visitors may be the Obon festival’s absolute inclusiveness. Everyone, whether a temple member or not, is always welcome to attend and participate.

“We believe that our family, our ancestors, come back during the time of Obon. They come back to see how we’re doing, to see who married whom, how big the kids have grown,” Iwata says. “We dance in rings—we don’t dance with partners—because as you’re dancing in a ring, your ancestors are next to you, and that continues the idea of family.”

Tasty Island-style foods keep dancers fueled and their feet moving.
Photo: Consuela Yokomura

The roots of Obon celebration in Hawaii date back to the late 1880s, when the first Japanese immigrants contracted as laborers for sugar cane and pineapple plantations began to establish communities across the Islands. Obon celebrations in Japan can be traced back more than 500 years. Like Hawaii, the observance in Japan features Bon Odori as a centerpiece of the fest.

In Japan, however, Obon begins with a welcoming outdoor fire called the mukaebi, meant to serve as a beacon for visiting spirits of the deceased, and concludes with an okuribi bonfire intended to help guide spirits back to the world of the dead. Modern-day Japan Obon celebrations also often end with Toro Nagashi, a tranquil shoreline lantern-floating ceremony with the same intent as the okuribi.

The annual Lantern Floating Hawaii ceremony at Ala Moana Beach Park.
Photo courtesy: Shinnyo-En Hawaii

In Hawaii, hongwanji observances forego the concluding okuribi bonfire, but begin with the burning of incense and small offerings to spirits at a memorial service. Iwata plans to bring at least two items to his Oahu temple’s offering table at the beginning of this summer’s Obon season: chichi dango, a Japanese candy made with sweetened rice flour, and white flowers. Both were favorites of a grandfather who passed away a few years ago.

Only one Hawaii Obon gathering—held each July at century-old Haleiwa Jodo Mission—ends with a Toro Nagashi, launching several hundred illuminated floating lanterns into calm, low-tide waters off Alii Beach Park on Oahu’s North Shore. Lantern Floating Hawaii, a much larger, pre-Obon season Toro Nagashi ceremony held annually on Memorial Day, sets adrift more than 3,000 lanterns inscribed with prayers for peace and messages to spirits in the waters edging Honolulu’s Ala Moana Beach Park. The event, organized by Hawaii’s Shinnyo-en Buddhist order to also honor lives lost in war, regularly draws more than 40,000 spectators and participants.

pearl city
Taiko drummers keep the beat.
Photo: Consuela Yokomura

Obon season in Hawaii, for many, is also an occasion for happy reconnections with the living. Iwata, an education and culture specialist at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii, spends time during Obon with friends and family members he usually sees only on holidays because of busy everyday schedules.

“My grandfather on my mom’s side was big on family. He made sure the whole family would get together for New Year’s, Christmas, Thanksgiving and for Obon,” Iwata says.

At a bon dance held several months after both his maternal grandparents passed away, Iwata sadly noted their absence from their usual posts at the event’s donation choba and in the hongwanji kitchen. He did, however, sense their presence at the dance, in particular, that of his grandmother.

“I had a feeling that she was there, and that she was watching us. That feeling actually comforted me,” Iwata says.

Sensei Jesse “Kenji” Johnasen, 26, makes sure to slip a small photograph of a departed grandfather into his kimono before joining other Bon Odori leaders in the concentric circle closest to the yagura tower at his hongwanji bon dance. He, too, is familiar with the sudden sensation of a visiting spirit during Obon season.

“I get chills sometimes,” says Johnasen.

Like many of their peers, Iwata and Johnasen began attending Obon events as children, initially more preoccupied with the wafting scents of grilled corn-on-the-cob, teri-Spam musubi, shoyu pork and yakisoba at the hongwanji food booths than participating in the dances. As teenagers, both shifted their attention to learning the 30 or so different dances performed on any given bon dance night.

A young girl enjoys the scene at a Manoa Valley Obon Festival.
Photo: Consuela Yokomura

Most Bon Odori dances are made up of less than a half-dozen moves, which are simply repeated. Tempo and gestures may vary depending on the Japanese prefecture of the dance’s origin. Some Hawaii hongwanji even mix in a few nontraditional tunes, such as the perennially popular Electric Slide, encouraging the all-inclusive community vibe.

On bon dance evenings when he is perched on the two-story yagura tower’s platform as a featured singer of traditional songs, Johnasen instructs confused newcomers to look to the innermost circle of dancers for proper guidance. Beyond that, he urges first-timers to simply, “Be patient with yourself, and relax.”

Should you elect to become a bit more proficient in your Bon Odori skills and join the ranks of Johnasen’s dance classes, taught throughout the year, you’ll find yourself dealing with a less than lenient instructor.

“I want my students to learn the right way because if they don’t, we’re going to lose some of this tradition,” Johnasen says. “That’s why I always push my dancers to do better.”

Another reason for his strictness? Johnasen wants to please his own 89-year-old bon dance teacher, whom he describes as a sort of hanai (Hawaiian for “adopted”) grandmother.

“I really look up to her, and I hate to disappoint her,” he says.

While both Johnasen and Iwata share concerns about the prospect of dwindling hongwanji congregation sizes and would appreciate seeing even larger crowds at Obon fests, neither could come up with a single element of summer bon dance evenings he would rather do without.

Says Iwata, with a smile and a laugh, “I’d just make them longer. Those hours go by fast.”

Categories: Culture, Oʻahu, Travel Tips