Lilting flutes, taiko drums, strings of lanterns glowing against the night sky: Summer in Hawaii is bon dance season. Every weekend from June through Labor Day, whole neighborhoods turn out at Japanese Buddhist temples across the Islands to celebrate the timeless tradition.
What’s a bon dance? The festivals evolved in Japan as a way to assure departed souls that all is well among the living. The lanterns light the way; the festive music and dancing lay to rest any doubts among the spirits.
Generations ago, bon dances brought together Japanese immigrants weary from long days in the sugarcane and pineapple fields. Today they belong to everyone. The entire panoply of Hawaii’s multiethnic community is there. You’re as likely to run into your mom’s hairdresser as you are your classmate from high school—along with their kids and all their kids’ friends.
For many, the neighborhood bon dance is a homecoming—the one they come back to as grownups, with kids in tow—and despite the food treats, lion dances, craft fairs and bazaars that other temples may offer, the old neighborhood bon dance will always be the best one ever.
If you’re near a bon dance, you’ll know immediately—if not from thunderous taiko beats rumbling through the air, then from tantalizing scents of grilled teriyaki or the sight of dancers moving in circles around a central musicians’ tower.
All are welcome and admission is free. If you’re a novice, these tips will help you get the most out of the experience.
- Go early—or late. To score parking, see the resident temple priests chant opening invocations and avoid long lines at food booths, plan to get there when the bon dance starts. The other best time is in the cool of evening, since nearly all dances are held on sun-warmed parking lots.
- Carpool, take a taxi or Uber. Most temples are modest structures in older residential neighborhoods, meaning parking is tight—even nearby lots are usually full by nightfall.
- Jump in and start dancing. No shame! Everyone’s a newbie once, and the outer dance circles are often full of first-timers. The only pros you’re likely to encounter are ladies in identical yukata (light summer kimono) dancing in the center. Be like everyone else and copy their moves.
- It’s left over right. The open flaps of yukata and kimono are always worn this way. Or almost always. When the dead are dressed for funerals, it’s right over left.
- Wear soft shoes. The dance circles move side to side and backwards and forwards, all in unison. If you’re caught unawares and accidentally step on someone’s foot, you’ll both be thankful you’re not wearing heels. Rubber slippers (flip-flops) are fine.
- Bring cash. Boy and Girl Scout troops, women’s societies and other temple groups sell homemade goodies, much of it cooked on the spot. Some temples are famed for their food offerings, which can be as much of a draw as the dancing. Favorites everywhere include teriyaki beef sticks, sweet fried andagi donuts, Spam musubi and shave ice. You might even find old-fashioned corn flake cookies, furikake-butter corn on the cob or Japanese pickles. Be sure to ask if the temple has a famous best-seller!