To attend a bon dance on Kauai is a magical and spiritual experience. A bon dance, which is celebrated during the obon season, is a Buddhist ceremony performed by the Japanese culture to honor the spirit of one’s ancestors.
The tradition of obon began in Japan over 500 years ago. It is based on the story in Buddhist transcripts of a devout monk who happily danced with joy when releasing his deceased mother’s spirit from the Realm of Hungry Ghosts.
In the early 19th century, Japanese immigrants introduced the traditions of their distant homelands when they arrived to work on the sugar and pineapple plantations. While the custom of obon nearly ended during the 1940’s due to attitudes stemming from World War II and the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the festival was revived in the 1950’s through the effort of Japanese-American veteran groups. It has since become a highly anticipated summer tradition for all of Kauai.
Bon dance season is held outdoors at the Japanese Buddhist temples from June through August. The weekend long celebration begins at sundown on Friday and Saturday nights. Toros, or Japanese paper lanterns, are strung across a dance ring from a raised platform called a yagura. Twinkling in stark contrast to the black sky, each toro represents a loved one who has left to the spiritual realm. Taiko drummers play on the yagura in syncopated rhythm to the music. Around the yagura, a kaleidoscope of men and women dressed in intricate kimono robes or happi shirts twirl and clap their hands to the classic Japanese folk songs. It doesn’t matter if you are young or old, all generations eagerly await the opportunity to dress up for this event and participate in the dancing and merriment. At the end of the obon season, the toros are lit and released into water, sending the spirit of the remembered ancestors on their way until the next year.
Like any melting pot culture, the bon dance has evolved and established new traditions on Kauai. There are games for children, baked goods and food booths. One of the favorites is the tradition of the flying saucer, which is served specially at Kauai bon dances. Flying saucers are little sandwiches made of regular white bread smothered in butter, cheese and ground hamburger meat. What makes these sandwiches special, is the process for grilling them, which include placing them in a pie iron over a live fire until they are crispy on the edges and gooey and hot on the inside. A flying saucer is not to be missed when attending a bon dance.
Children also love the fish pond game, which involved flinging a bamboo fishing pole with a clothespin attached to the bottom over the top of a large sheet. Behind the sheet, a toy is attached to the clothespin. When the child feels the fish pull on their line, they are able to claim their winning prize.
Depending on the temple you go to, the desserts offerings vary. Okinawan desserts called andagi, which is a deep fried donut that is sweet and moist inside is served. At other bon dances, malasada donuts, originating from Portugal, are deep fried and shaken in a bag with sugar. Poi balls, which are similar to donut holes on a stick with a sticky poi mochi filling and rolled in a glaze may be offered as well. All desserts are equally delicious and are a shining example of how the various cultures on Kauai have molded into one.
Quick tips for attending a bon dance:
- Bring cash- Most bon dances are fundraisers for the organizations that host them and do not accept credit cards
- Go early- The seats around the ring fill up early and you will want to get a good spot to watch. People also setup their own personal folding chairs. It’s not polite to sit in them. The food booth lines also get very long and sometimes run out of food, the earlier you go, the better
- Don’t be afraid to get in the ring- The guiding purpose of a bon dance is to set aside the ego through unselfconscious dancing. Learning to dance is a little like learning to country line dance. No one will notice if you miss a step…or ten
- Hang loose- This means, be flexible. Embrace the uniqueness of the event, be patient as it can get crowded, and soak in all the wonderful sights, sounds, colors and tastes. It’s meant to be enjoyed through the evening and there is no need to rush the experience
Kauai Bon Dances begin at 7:30 p.m. and end at 10:30 p.m. The 2019 Kauai bon dance schedule is as follows:
- May 17 Mahelona Hospital
- May 31 -June 1 Kauai Soto Zen Temple
- June 7-8 Koloa Jodo Mission
- June 14 – 15 West Kauai Hongwanji Mission (Hanapepe)
- June 21-22 Lihue Hongwanji Mission
- June 28-29 Waimea Shingon Mission
- July 5-6 (No Bon Dance)
- July 12-13 Kapaa Jodo Mission
- July 19-20 Waimea Higashi Hongwanji Mission
- July 26-27 Kapaa Hongwanji Mission
- Aug 9 Kauai Veterans Memorial Hospital
It doesn’t matter how old you are, the beauty of attending a bon dance is an unforgettable experience that can be appreciated by all.