By Gerald Hirata, President of Kaua‘i Soto Zen

Lanterns at Kaua‘i Soto Zen. Photo by Brian Howell

Lanterns at Kaua‘i Soto Zen. Photo by Brian Howell

Obon is an important annual observance of Japanese tradition, together with Oshogatsu, or New Year’s Day.

One ushers in the new year, while the other starts the second half of the year. The bon odori, a Buddhist folk dance performed outdoors around a yagura (raised platform), has distinctive music, while colorful lanterns strung around the platform create a festival mood.

Japanese customs, however, acquired new observances when Obon came to Hawai‘i, adding food and game booths that are now a vital part of the local festivity. As we busily prepare for the upcoming festival next month in Hanapepe, I remind myself what Obon means to me.

I have many memories while growing up in McBryde Sugar Plantation’s Camps Two and Three where the old Zenshuji Temple was the gathering place for all of our social, cultural and religious activities. Summer was Obon season and on Kaua‘i, it meant a continuous celebration that extended from mid-June to mid-August.

Bon Dance 1

Bon Dance at the Kaua‘i Soto Zen. Photo by Brian Howell

Weeks before the event, the women started the food preparation in the community hall, where the spirit was one of a busy school cafeteria. The men were out tending the temple grounds, mowing the lawn, trimming the hedges and setting up the yagura and the ring for the dancers, in addition to the booths for the festival. The temple itself underwent meticulous cleaning from top to bottom.

During this time, at my grandfather’s insistence, the whole family would do a haka mairi (gravesite visitation) with flowers and offerings to our deceased ancestors. We’d pour water over the gravestones, burn incense and offer food and our prayers. When both sets of grandparents died, it meant special trips to the Port Allen and Kapa‘a cemeteries. Gravesite and temple visits are part of what I do today in order to honor deceased relatives, and it attains added meaning during the Obon season.

Traditionally, my Buddhist upbringing taught me that the ancestral spirits come home to visit with their family and feast together at Obon. The lanterns help guide the spirits home. Each home had a butsudan, a household shrine, where we presented offerings, as if our ancestors were still with us. It’s a joyous feeling to know that although beloved ones have passed, family ties with the deceased are not severed.