Dancing Obon in Hawai‘i

Ka Leo (University of Hawai’i)
Posted: Wednesday, July 15, 2015 5:00 am | Updated: 4:54 pm, Thu Jul 16, 2015.
Jennifer Yoo, Staff Writer

55a440e1e947d.imageEvery summer, people of all ages and religious backgrounds come together all over Hawai‘i, often dressed in yukata, a light cotton summer kimono, to celebrate being alive and honor those who have passed on, known as Obon.

The Obon festival, also popularly known as the “Festival of Lanterns,” is a 500-year-old tradition rooted in Japanese Buddhism beliefs that ancestral spirits return to their homes from the world of the dead during this particular time of year to be with their families. The tradition was brought over to Hawai‘i from Japan by immigrants in the late 19th century and has become a large aspect of Hawai‘i’s summer culture today.

Traditionally, families light lanterns to welcome and show their ancestors the way home as well as place offerings in the form of food, drinks and flowers at their graves. The biggest attraction to Obon celebrations is the festive and family-friendly atmosphere filled with music, dance, food and good-natured fun. Usually set in the courtyards, lawns or parking lots of Buddhist temples, families come together to savor some delicious food from the many vendors, play games and immerse themselves in the lively rhythm of taiko drumming.

A significant history

One of the big highlights of celebrating Obon is taking part in the group line dances, known collectively as Bon dance. First performed in Hawai‘i in 1910, the significance of dance in Obon is rooted in the religious origins which tell the story of a Buddhist monk who used his supernatural powers to see his late mother. When he saw that her spirit was trapped and suffering in the hungry ghost realm, he made offerings for her release and danced for joy at her ascension. Now the Bon dance has become a key aspect of Obon as a celebration of life and a tribute to the dead.

Rather than a specific dance like “The Macarena,” however, Bon dance is better considered a style of folk dancing with a wide repertoire of songs. Most dances are organized in circles around striking elevated stages called “yagura” where music troupes perform live music under canopies of paper lanterns. While everyone is welcome to participate in the dancing and most of the dances are relatively easy to pick up by following along, it might be a bit intimidating for some to throw themselves into the circle and learn the steps on the fly.

Learning the Tankobushi

The most popular and simplest of the Bon dances is the “Tankobushi,” which translates roughly to “The Coal Miner’s Song.” Regardless of which event you attend on the island, you are almost guaranteed to hear this song being played at least once. Learn the steps here so that you are ready to hop right in and be a part of the Obon festivities like a pro.

Like almost every Bon dance, everyone starts by standing in a circle, turned so that you are facing the back of the person next to you. When the music starts, clap twice, pause for a beat, then clap once more to signal the start of the dance.


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Join in on the Obon festivities

Obon celebrations have already started around Hawai‘i, but there are many more still in store for this summer so there is no need to worry about missing out. Commemorations vary slightly from one location to the next but admission is always free. Don’t forget to bring some cash to buy food or souvenirs to support the temples and organizations that put these events together each year. Come be a part of the lively, festive atmosphere and join in the circle of dance at an Obon celebration near you.

Higashi Hongwanji Betsuin
1685 Alaneo St.
Call 531-9088
July 24-25 at 7 p.m.

Kailua Hongwanji
268-A Kuulei Rd.
Call 262-4560
July 25 at 7 p.m.

Palolo Hongwanji
1641 Palolo Ave.
Call 732-1491
July 31-Aug. 1 at 7 p.m.



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