Oh Boy, Obon!

Tsuki ga, deta deta, tsuki ga deta* Quick, wea you wen hea dat song befo’? As a typical non-Japanese-speaking Nikkei, if you only recognize one Japanese song (other than Momotaro or Sukiyaki), there’s a good chance that song is the obon favorite, “Tanko Bushi,” the coal miner’s song.

If you stay go Hawai’i dis summah, you gotta go check out one obon festival. On da list of “tings fo’ do in Hawai’i,” obon stay on da top, right between “eat plate lunch” and “go beach.”

According to this year’s Bon Dance Schedule, as published in the major dailies, there are 80 obon festivals throughout the state, including 33 on Oahu and 27 on the Big Island. Spread out over 14 weekends, beginning the first weekend in June through Labor Day, that averages to more than 5.7 festivals per weekend in Hawai’i. Considering that most of the larger festivals take place over two nights, like not seeing a Starbucks or McDonalds, it’s nearly impossible to not come across an obon festival during a summer weekend evening in Hawai’i.

The literal translation of obon is “lantern festival,” and indeed, the festivals are marked by the colorful paper lanterns swaying in the trade winds, joyous taiko-driven folk music and, of course, the enticing shoyu aroma of teriyaki on the grill. The lanterns are intended to light the way for the spirits of our ancestors who return each year for a visit. It is a time for the living to pay tribute and express our gratitude to those who came before us.

Traditionally, the true obon season runs for just a few days, however, because there are so many Buddhist temples throughout the Islands, in order to minimize overlapping festivals, the obon season has been stretched to three full months.

But you say you not one Japanee or Buddhist? Ey, no mattah. Like many other ethnic customs in Hawai’i, obon, over the years, has transcended Japanese culture, and has been adopted as a “local” custom, enjoyed by people of all ages, ethnicities and faiths. In typically Hawai’i fashion, obon festivals are warmly welcoming to all.

In recent years, the locals have even been joined by bus loads of obon clubs, with their uniform yukata, from Japan. Tour companies in Japan organize special trips for bon odori groups to hit the Hawai’i obon circuit, and to enjoy a tradition that has all but disappeared from the major metropolitan centers in their native land.

If it’s an election year, there will be no shortage of politicians, in their yukata or happi coats, in the dance lines and working the crowd, shaking hands and kissing babies. But nevertheless, it’s considered a major campaign faux pas for a candidate to show up at obon, but not participate in at least one dance.

We’ve heard from bon odori aficionados that the songs and dances differ between obons in Hawai’i and the Mainland. Maybe stay different cuz da kotonks wen come from da kine different prefectchas in Japan, or maybe cuz Hawai’i bon odori get da kine hula influences. For some reason, however the ubiquitous “Tanko Bushi” is still “Tanko Bushi,” whether at the Stockton Buddhist Temple, the Wahiawa Hongwanji or the Kahului Jodo Mission.

Most of da dances stay simple, wit da same kine movements, ovah an’ ovah, so easy fo’ learn ’em. But if you stay like Japanee Bruddah Kyle, prohibited by his wife from dancing in public, at least go fo’ da food.

Teriyaki sticks, saimin, okinawan andagi doughnuts, spam musubi and shave ice are all typical fare, but obon veterans know the specialties of each temple. On Maui, for example, chow fun noodles served in a paper cone (da kine shave ice cup) is a traditional favorite. Bruddah Kurt Osaki’s eyes light up when he talks about the “flying saucers” sold at bon dances in Kauai, sloppy joe, encased with a sandwich press, between two slices of bread. Sound ono, Kurt.

When you’re at the festival, be sure to pick up a fan (uchiwa) and towel (tenegui). Many temples sell their own souvenir uchiwa and tenegui. Not only are they essential for certain dances, but it’s a contribution to the temple, and best of all, it’ll be a nice memento of your Hawai’i obon experience.

So, go to eat, go to dance, or go to just soak up a little bit of plantation-era nostalgia. Whatever the reason, go to an obon in Hawai’i.

…sano yoi yoi!

Both the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and Honolulu Advertiser publish the Obon Schedule at the start of the summer each year, generally around the end of May. If you plan to visit the Islands, the current schedule is available on-line: Star-Bulletin, Advertiser.

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