Bon Dancing in the Aloha State

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June marks the start of the Bon season in Hawai‘i. From the first weekend in June to the middle of September, avid Bon dancers throughout the Aloha State don their happi, yukata or kimono and head off to one of the several dance sites on any given weekend.

For some, this time of the year is special as it allows families and friends to come together and spend the weekend dancing the night away. For others, it is a time to reflect on those who have recently passed on. Yet others come for the great food that is served. Be it that you are Japanese or not, whatever the reason, Obon has a special place for those living in Hawai‘i.

Being a Yonsei, or fourth-generation Japanese, born and raised in Hawai‘i, I recall some of my earliest memories with Bon dancing. My family would get together at the Waipahu Soto Zen Temple for service with my mother’s family. The whole Kawamura family would show up for the service and afterward we would stay and watch the dancers dance before heading home.

I still recall as a boy living in Village Park hearing taiko playing in the distance before falling asleep and thinking, “Oh, it’s a Bon dance.” As I got older, our family started to travel to other Bon dance sites in the Pearl City and Aiea areas. It wouldn’t be until later in high school that my interest in Bon dancing really started to grow. A few of my friends and I decided that we wanted to go to a few more Bon dances and that was the start of my Bon dance life.

Being that people know of, or see me going to various dances, people often ask me, “What’s the best Bon dance that you’ve gone to?” My usual reply: “Depends on how you judge the Bon dance.” Some judge a good Bon dance by the food that they have, especially the shave ice. Others, by the type of music they play. Others still judge if there is enough parking, how long the dance goes, or how big it is.

In the end I would say that I judge a Bon dance on how much fun I have and how popular it is with the public. For Bon season 2009, my top three dances were Honpa Hongwanji Hawai‘i Betsuin, Waipahu Soto Zen Temple Taiyoji, and Hilo Meishoin on the Big Island of Hawai‘i. Though I have personal connections with these three temples, I find that many others share my opinion about them. Below is a short summary of each Bon dance site.

Honpa Hongwanji Hawai‘i Betsuin is located at 1727 Pali Hwy. on the island of Oahu and is a popular Bon dance site because it has a large dance area, ample seating areas, and the food is good, prepared by the members and families of the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts troops affiliated with the temple. They have live Fukushima, Iwakuni and Okinawan dances done and also have a mini taiko performance for the public.

Waipahu Soto Zen Temple Taiyoji is located at 94-413 Waipahu St. on Oahu and is a favorite of many. People that live in the city come out especially for this Bon dance year after year. Though it has a small dance area and parking is difficult to find, there is a sense of family and community spirit. Many long-time families of the temple and friends come together and talk about old times. Old classmates reunite with each other and families can see how much everyone has grown since the last season. The after-dance food, prepared by the fujinkai ladies and members of the temple, tastes so good after you’ve spent three hours dancing continuously. Though most temples offer food after the dance, for some reason, people like to come to Waipahu for their food. Some say it’s because “country people can cook.”

Hilo Meishoin is located at 97 Olona St. in Hilo on the Big Island of Hawai‘i. This particular Bon dance is one of my favorites because it attracts so many youth to it. The first time I attended this Bon dance I was shocked to see four or five rings deep of young students dancing. And not just one or two dances; sometimes they would be in there for an hour or so. On Oahu, most of the dancers are older with some younger ones mixed in, so this was a complete but welcome surprise for me. The food is also something that needs to be mentioned as well, as it is so fresh and so good that it would make anyone come back for more.

From the time I was a younger Bon dancer to now, I’ve been to many dances. Each year I try to go to a new temple or revisit ones that I have not gone to in a while. Going to neighbor island dances too is also a new and fun thing for me as I get to learn new dances and experience a new Bon dance environment.

Last year I was able to go to a Bon dance on all the major islands (except for Molokai) with at least 15 dances on Oahu alone. This year I hope to attend more dances and expand my list of places that I have gone to. Where will this year’s top Bon dances be? Who knows … it just may be the one that you go to, too.

Derrick Iwata is the education specialist at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i, where he helps to educate people, especially teachers and students, interested in learning about the Japanese American experience in Hawai‘i and the Japanese culture. Born and raised in Honolulu and a graduate of the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa College of Education, he is an avid Bon dancer with a certificate in Japanese dance from Omiya Minbu Kai.

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