By Vivian Miezianko
Northwest Asian Weekly
It was a warm evening on Saturday, July 18. Outside the Seattle Buddhist Church on South Main Street, a large circle of diverse people, many wearing colorful summer kimonos, were dancing to Japanese folk music and the beating of a big drum. Others looked on, snapping pictures while enjoying Japanese-style shaved ice.
In the crowded yard, encompassed by the paper lantern-lined pavement and the temple, there were booths selling Japanese food and paper cord art. The beer and sake garden, located behind the temple, was packed. It was the Bon Odori of Seattle.
Bon Odori is a well-known traditional dance in Japan. It is a centuries-old Japanese Buddhist custom that takes place every summer during Obon, the Bon festival.
Obon honors and celebrates the lives of people’s deceased family members and friends, according to the Seattle Buddhist Church, organizer of the Seattle Bon Odori. People dance outdoors to Japanese folk music as an expression of joy in reminiscing over ancestors and deceased friends.
The word Obon is an abbreviation of urabon, the Japanese transliteration of the Sanskrit word Ullambana. Obon literally means to hang upside down, implying great suffering, according to the Shingon Buddhist International Institute’s website.
There is a story behind Obon: Mokuren Sonja was a disciple of Buddha, possessing supernatural powers. Utilizing his supernatural powers to look upon his deceased mother, he found that she had fallen into the path of hungry ghosts. He asked Buddha how he could save his mother, and he was told to make offerings to the priests who had just finished their summer retreat. As a result, his mother was saved from the path of hungry ghosts. Happy about his mother’s release from suffering, Mokuren danced with joy.
Obon is an important time for a family gathering, during which people believe the spirits of ancestors return to their family’s home. People clean their houses, light their homes with chouchin, light the paper lanterns, and offer food to the spirits of their ancestors.
As for the Seattle event, Ron Hamakawa of the Seattle Buddhist Church said that Seattle’s Bon Odori has a recorded history of 77 years.
So what was special about this year’s Bon Odori?
“We [brought] back the retro dance,” Hamakawa said.
The type of dance featured at Obon varies from region to region. The retro dance first started in Seattle’s Bon Odori in 1957, and Hamakawa couldn’t tell when the last time this kind of dance had taken place. “It is more in line with the tradition of Bon Odori, when we celebrate with gratitude the lives and sacrifices of the people who came before us,” he said.
By bringing back the retro dance, Hamakawa hoped to teach the new generation about this tradition. Preceding the dance was a brief service held by the Rev. Don Castro inside the temple.
“[People] who have lost their loved ones know their spirit is with us,” he said. “We know that they want us to live. We are an extension of their lives. This affirmation of lives is our saying to the loved ones, ‘Thank you. We are doing well.’ ”
Then the dance started. Participants, from toddlers to elders, Japanese and non-Japanese, danced in an elongated circle to Japanese folk music.
Taiko, a Japanese drum, kept the rhythms going throughout the various dance selections, some of which involved props such as paper fans. Onlookers watched the dancers’ coordinated hand movements, their occasional body-twirling, and their beautiful yukata, summer kimonos.
The taiko performance drew a lot of attention. There was a powerful rhythmic drive produced by the group of percussion players, who leapt and moved with gusto. In addition to dance and music, Japanese martial arts (judo and kendo) demonstrations were held. There were booths selling food such as beef domburi, chicken yakisoba, cold wheat noodles in broth called somen, and Japanese-style shaved ice called kori.
The beer and sake garden featured a live jazz performance.
Eliena, Marika, and Michiko, all dressed in yukata, are 14-year-old girls who participated in the dance.“I’ve been coming here every year since I was very little,” Eliena said.
They all stated that they enjoyed Bon Odori very much.
Hamakawa’s hope of teaching the new generation about the tradition of Obon is not hard to realize. ♦
Bon Odori was held on July 18 and 19 at the Seattle Buddhist Church. For more information, visit www.seattlebetsuin.com.
Vivian Miezianko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.