By Léo Azambuja
June marks the start of Bon Dance season. For the next three months, nine Buddhist temples will share this cultural and spiritual festival with the entire island.
“It’s a happy time, a time to be with your ancestors,” said Gerald Hirata, a member of the Kaua‘i Buddhist Council and president of the Kaua‘i Soto Zen Temple in Hanapepe.
Hirata said the Bon Dance started in India, when one of Buddha’s disciples asked what he could do to release the spirit of his mother from suffering in the afterlife. Buddha told his disciple, Mokuren, to offer food at a temple on the 15th day of the seventh month. After seeing his mother’s release, Mokuren danced with joy.
So each year, from June to August, the spirits of the deceased return, and are welcomed in the Bon Dance.
“You can dance in the rain with all the spirits,” Hirata said.
And you can also eat some good food — flying saucers, pronto pups, mochi, musubi, manju, saimin, shave ice, etc. — interact with friends and family and have a great time before saying goodbye to your ancestors until next year.
In Japan, the Bon Dance tradition started about 600 years ago. In Hawai‘i, it started with the first Japanese immigrants. After being celebrated by five generations, the Hawaiian Bon festivals have grown a little different than the original Japanese tradition, according to Hirata.
He said the festival was initially for the Japanese, but it has grown to include everyone on Kaua‘i. Besides the traditional Japanese dance around a raised platform called yagura, there’s live music and taiko drumming.
Dancers wear a traditional kimono or a less formal happi coat. Newcomers are welcomed to dance wearing a tenugui, which is a cotton towel dyed in a pattern and used as a dance implement or a headband.
Some of the events may have children’s games and cultural exhibits, such as ikebana, bonsai, sumie or martial arts.
All nine Buddhist temples on the island belong to the Kaua‘i Buddhist Council, and together they plan the entire season, so there are no two events on the same weekend, according to Hirata.
The first Bon Dance of the season is at the Kapa‘a Jodo Mission June 6-7. The West Kaua‘i Hongwanji Mission will have a Bon Dance in the following weekend, June 13-14. The Kapa‘a Hongwanji Mission’s Bon Dance is on June 20-21, and the Waimea Higashi Hongwanji will host its event on June 27-28.
There will be three Bon Dances in July; the Kaua‘i Soto Zen Temple on July 11-12, the Koloa Jodo Mission on July 18-19, and the West Kaua‘i Hongwanji on July 25-26.
In August, there will be two Bon Dances; the Lihu‘e Hongwanji Mission on Aug. 1-2, and the Waimea Shingon Mission on Aug. 8-9 to close the season.
All Bon Dances are from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m.