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Hawaii’s obon celebrations focus on family as pandemic wanes

The return of the beloved Japanese festival highlights the sense of community that is fundamental to Hawaii locals.

HONOLULU (CN) — “Auntie! It’s been so long!”

“Eh, so good to see you guys! Is this your son? So tall now!”

I am stopped in my tracks by the two women who are exchanging hugs and launching into fervent catching up and talking story. I’ve barely made it 10 feet into the event. Conversations in this vein happen about a dozen more times throughout the night as I weave through the thick crowd of reuniting friends and family.

Reunion is the theme of the Japanese tradition of obon, and it is especially apparent this year. After several years of pandemic cancellations, it is no surprise that community members of the Soto Mission of Aiea, a Buddhist temple also called Taiheiji, are eager to return to in-person obon and to see old friends and family members.

“Everybody’s so happy that we’re here! This is usually the only time we get to see so many people from the community and the church," said Susan, a church member and volunteer at the event. "We really miss it when it’s not happening, it’s a bit of work to set up the booth and have the responsibility, but we just really miss it when we aren’t able to see all our friends and catch up,”

Observed in the summer, obon is a Japanese holiday intended to commemorate and honor deceased ancestors. Originally a Buddhist custom, it is believed that ancestors spirits’ return during obon to spend time with living relatives. Some traditions vary between different regions of Japan, but in general the festival lasts for three days, usually in mid-July or August, when it is customary to travel to ancestral homes to reunite with family, both living and deceased.

Taiheiji is nestled in a residential area, where next door neighbors didn't seem to mind the festivities. (Candace Cheung/Courthouse News).

During this time, it is tradition to visit and clean graves of loved ones, and to make food offerings and prayers at household altars and at temples while lighting incense. Cucumber horses and eggplant cows are crafted to become vessels for the spirits (the slimmer cucumber horse represents hope for the spirit’s swift arrival, while the squatter eggplant cow symbolizes the spirit’s slow return, weighed down by their families’ offerings).

To help guide the spirits home, families hang lit lanterns at doorways. At the end of the holiday, lanterns representing the spirits of the ancestors are set afloat at sea. In Kyoto, an obon tradition involves lighting massive fires on mountainsides in the shape of kanji characters and shapes at the end of the three-day festivities. The fires symbolize sending off the ancestors on their return to the spirit world.

The origin of obon is attributed to the story of one of the Buddha’s disciples. Upon finding out that his mother was trapped in the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, the disciple asked the Buddha how to free her. The Buddha instructed his disciple to make offerings to Buddhist monks on their return from their summer retreat. In doing this, he realized and was grateful for the sacrifices that his mother had made for him during her lifetime. Upon her release from the Ghost Realm, he was so pleased that he began to dance.

Although the religious meaning has waned somewhat throughout the history of the 500-year-old tradition, many of the temples that host obon events continue to offer prayer services alongside the more festive events.

“The belief is that the spirit of our departed loved ones returns during this season of bon," said Taiheiji’s Reverend Shuji Komagata. "Each temple has their little variances, but what we’re basically doing is making dedications and prayers to our departed family members, whether it’s a specific person, like grandma or grandpa, or family in general.”

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Even late into the night, the crowd of bon odori dancers continued to grow. (Candace Cheung/Courthouse News)

Over time, parts of the obon celebration have evolved from its Buddhist roosts to an almost carnival-esque event, complete with dancing, games, and food. A major part of the holiday, and arguably the biggest draw for the general public, is the bon odori, or bon dance.

The dance is performed as a group around a large red and white structure called a yagura. Many participants have donned the yukata, a lighter, summer version of the kimono. Dancers encircle the yagura. Moves involve moving around the yagura while clapping and waving fans, sometimes turning to face the yagura and back around. Anyone can hop in at any time, and the circle of dancers grows throughout the night, pushing at the bordering chairs arranged in the temple’s courtyard for observers.

The dance is typically done to Japanese folk music, although some bon odori have incorporated contemporary music, like Pokémon songs or even western hits from the 1980s. Although Taiheiji mostly broadcasts its tunes over speakers, there are occasional live interludes.

The top of the yagura is set up like a small stage where a live singer is accompanied by flutists and taiko drummers like Tai and Kaa, who are preparing for their obon debut. Taiko performances are a common element in many Japanese festivals, but is heavily featured at obon especially, as the rhythm of the drums provides the soundtrack for the dancers.

“The way taiko is taught, it’s related to feeling. Everyone gets into it, your body moves, everyone’s moving, and you just know how to do it," Kaa said. "Everybody sees and hears taiko and they think it’s just banging drums, but our sensei, he teaches us about the nuances, and how to hold your body, and how it makes a big difference."

Tai and Kaa got into taiko through their young son, who will also perform tonight. The family is performing with Taiheiji’s own taiko group, Somei Taiko, founded by Reverend Komagata.

Musicians atop the yagura, bon odori's centerpiece, provide the beat for the dancers below. (Candace Cheung/Courthouse News)

It’s no surprise that obon’s emphasis on community and family has managed to take such a strong hold in Hawaii, whose residents feel an exceptional kinship with each other given the island chain's isolation.

Obon looks somewhat differently in Hawaii, not unlike the many other customs that adapted from traditions brought over by the influx of Asian immigrants in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

In the early days of Asian settlement in the west, Hawaii was usually the first stop, and while many did continue on to the mainland and beyond, a large percentage stayed on the islands. Many families can trace their roots back to these early arrivals, who worked at the pineapple and sugarcane plantations.

Japanese immigrants were especially prevalent, and Japanese culture is enmeshed within many local customs. Foods like spam musubi and events like obon evolved distinctly from traditions brought over by Japanese plantation workers. Most notably, Hawaii celebrates an ‘obon season’ stretching throughout the entirety of the summer months, instead of the three days that Japan observes. From June up until early September, there are bon events nearly every week, on every island, at the multitudes of Buddhist temples.

“This is a tradition that was brought over from Japan, but they don’t do these festivals as much as they used to," Komagata said. "People from Japan come to Hawaii, and they see the bon dance and they’re impressed with what we do here. They have summer festivals in Japan, but it’s a little different. The thing in Hawaii is we have a snapshot of an older tradition that’s been carried on in Hawaii and our Japanese-American population are really proud to carry on this practice.”

Although Japanese obon events usually feature stalls that serve the classic Japanese summer treats like takoyaki or dango, Taiheiji, like many other Hawaii temples, cater more toward local tastes.  The food stand serves up island favorites like the teriyaki burger, yakisoba, saimin and, of course, shave ice.

Shave ice, with a sweet condensed milk 'snowcap', is a Hawaii staple for the summer. (Candace Cheung/Courthouse News)

Everywhere I turn, obon proves to be a family affair.

Susan, working diligently in the temple’s donation and sales booth, said the other women helping her are her sisters. She flips through a thick book, published for the temple’s 100-year anniversary, and finds the section on her family, who have been involved with Taiheiji for many years. She shows me a black and white photo of her grandfather and a photo of her and her sisters in their youth.

A father leads his small daughter, clad in her yukata, into the dance, demonstrating the moves. The girl’s mother cheers from the sidelines, standing next to a baby in a stroller.

Even I manage to run into an acquaintance from high school.

Obon’s focus on reunion and family is especially compelling in Hawaii, where everyone is family, regardless of actual blood ties.

“On a more human level, it’s a time for us to reflect on our lives with those who have come and gone before us, how they have impacted our lives in the past, and how they can still be a very important part of our lives even if they aren’t here physically, so that we make a pledge to remember them,” Komagata said. “It’s a good practice remembering our loved ones, but also for looking toward the future as well."

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