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Jul 25, 2017

Welcome to Bon Dance Season In Hawai'i

It's a hot summer evening in Honolulu at the Honpa Hongwanji. Tonight, the Buddhist mission is adorned in colorful lights as hundreds of people—many dressed in traditional Japanese attire—socialize, eat, mingle, and perform a graceful series of traditional Japanese dances.


In unison, they move around a colorful tower, slowly moving their arms, spinning, and keeping the beat. Nearby, a singer croons and drummers pound out ancient rhythms. The process is stunningly beautiful, especially under the warm glow of the strung lanterns, known as chochin.

Welcome to the bon dance.

Every year in the islands, during the summer months between June and September, various Buddhist temples (known as hongwanji) across the islands host elaborate festivals honoring lost loved ones. Initially brought to Hawai'i by Japanese immigrants in 1910 during the plantation days, the tradition of bon dance festivals actually dates back over 500 years to feudal Japan.

According to an age-old story, a disciple of Buddha named Maha Maudgalyayana (Mokuren), had a supernatural power to watch over the spirit of his deceased mother. Sadly, he saw that evil, hungry spirits were surrounding her, so with Buddha's blessing, his mother was freed from this realm, causing Mokuren to dance with joy ecstatically. Thus, to this day, bon dance festivals are held to honor and celebrate our ancestors and those who we've loved.

While there are a myriad of bon dances held throughout the summer, we fell in love with the tradition at the Honpa Hongwanji. Here, we swooned over the graceful movements of the dancers, taking particular note of the beauty of a single elderly woman who seemed to glide over the ground. Donning a traditional yukata (light kimono), she moved in synchronicity with the hundred of other dancers around her, waving an uchiwa (hand-held fan) like a functional prop to her routine. She couldn't have been a day shy of 80, but her movements were light and she practically dripped grace and poise.

While this woman may have been an expert, you don't necessarily have to be to enjoy a bon dance. Part of the joy and beauty of a bon dance is that anyone can partake in the tradition. You don't have to necessarily speak Japanese to slide into the dance and well…you don't really need to even know how to dance. You only need to be a little bold, feel the flow, let your hair down a little, and step like the others are stepping. Let the rhythm of the drums take hold and ponder an ancestor that's dear to you and wish their spirit well.

View the upcoming bon dance festival schedule.

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