Bon Dance Festivals in Hawaii

By Andy Beth Miller

Visalia Obon Festival, California. Photo: Dennis Amith.

Each year, between the months of June and August, Obon festivals across the globe gather communities together in order to honor the spirits of their ancestors. A cherished Japanese Buddhist custom — dating back more than 500 years — Obon (sometimes shortened to just “Bon”) traditionally lasts for a duration of three days and consists of a dance known as Bon-Odori, which is often the highlight of the entire event.

Origins of the Obon Festival

Visalia Obon Festival, California. Photo: Dennis Amith.

The reason for the festival’s timing (each exact starting date varies within different regions throughout Japan and in Hawaii) is that, according to Japanese lore, these months are when the ancestor spirits return to visit family and friends. The actual term “Obon” is a shortened version stemming from Sanskrit, translated as “hanging upside down” —nomenclature which gives homage to the great suffering endured by those who have gone before us.

Bon Dances Celebrate Life

Obon Festival, Japan. Photo: Giovanna Durgoni.

The Bon Odori dance directly coincides with this desire to honor one’s ancestors, its origins being a fascinating story involving a disciple of Buddha (MoKuren), who, when learning of the suffering of his deceased mother, made offerings and saw her released from her agony. Overjoyed, MoKuren danced in order to honor the selflessness and sacrifices his own mother had made during her lifetime. From this unique dance of jubilation comes Bon Odori, or “Bon Dance,” said to welcome the spirits of the ancestors to join in this, a celebration of life, as well as to help them find their own ways to the light.

Bon Dances Celebrate Life

Bon Dori, Oahu. Photo: liltree.

Here in Hawaii, all across the islands, various local hongwanjis (Jodo Shinshu sect Buddhist temples) fling wide their doors, inviting all (regardless of spiritual or religious affiliations) to come and partake in the festivities, marked by a kaleidoscope of vibrantly colored hanging lights — bright orbs leading the way for the spirits to make their paths — and the famed Bon Odori dances, showcasing revelers donning beautiful kimonos moving to the beat of thundering taiko drums as they make their ways in a spherical pattern around yagura platforms. Also to be enjoyed are cultural craft booths, ono (Hawaiian term for absolutely delicious!) Japanese fare, like savory udon noodles and manju (a beloved traditional Japanese sweet).

No matter which island you are visiting, there is sure to be an Obon celebration not too far away, so fetch your loved ones and come join in this beautiful tradition of paying respects to — and celebrating — those who have come before. E Komo Mai, and welcome, friends!

Click here to see the 2017 Hawaii Bon Dance Calendar.

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