Hawaii Bon Dance 101

Obon season is upon us, and if you’ve never been to a bon dance before, this might be your year. Bon dances are festive, inclusive affairs, but they can also be baffling to the uninitiated. Here’s a quick guide on what to know before you go.


Illustrations: Valentino Valdez

Also in this feature:

Buddhism in Hawaii: Fading Tradition
Bondancersizing the Night Away

1. YAGURA

The tower at the center of the bon dance gives musicians a place to sit and dancers something to dance around.
 

2. CHOCHIN

The colorful lanterns strung from the yagura serve as a symbolic reminder to seek the light of the Buddha. They also light up the dance area.
 

3. BON DANCE CLUBS

Oahu’s seven bon dance clubs provide dancers and musicians to temples that need help throwing their bon dances. The Honolulu Fukushima Bon Dance Club even brings its own yagura, which is mounted on wheels so it can be towed from one dance to another.
 

4. CHOBA

Buddhist temples rely on their annual bon dances as fundraisers, and the choba is the booth where donations ($3 and up) are collected. Donors’ names, along with the amounts of their contributions, are written on slips of paper and displayed outside of some choba.
 

5. MUSIC

Live music is typically supplemented by commercial recordings from Japan. Japanese folk music is emphasized at some dances. Others mix classics with more contemporary compositions, such as “Pokemon Ondo,” inspired by the Pokemon craze.
 

6. GRINDZ

Standard fare includes shave ice, saimin, barbecued meat sticks, hot dogs, hamburgers and the hole-less Okinawan doughnuts known as andagi. Any calories burned up dancing can be replaced immediately.
 

7. YUKATA & HAPI

This is the traditional bon dancer attire. The yukata is a light summer kimono, worn by men or women. The hapi is a short jacket, also unisex. Proper dress is encouraged, though not generally required, for the dancers.
 

8. TENUGUI

Small towels sometimes used as dance props, and sometimes used simply to mop up sweat. Pick one up at the choba when you make your donation.
 

9. UCHIWA

Hand-held fans sometimes used as dance props, and sometimes used simply to keep dancers cool.
 

10. HEESHI

At Okinawan bon dances, the drummers encourage the dancers by shouting meaningless words at them. These call-outs are called heeshi. In some cases, the dancers yell back. “Ha‘i‘ya,” the drummers might yell. “Ha‘i‘ya‘i‘ya‘sa‘sa,” the dancers will yell back.
 

11. SPIRITS OF THE DEAD

They are in attendance. Bon dances are all about honoring your ancestors and letting them you’re having a good time in this life. So be sure to smile.
 

Want to attend a summer bon dance festival in Hawaii? Here's the schedule.