The local schedule lasts June through August all over the Island

I remember seeing a multitude of bright colored paper lanterns strung all over the front lot of the beautiful, white, Honpa Hongwanji Mission, and wondering what in the world it all meant as I drove into Honolulu via the Pali my first summer. It took me till the next summer when it happened again to start asking questions, which finally introduced me to the fun and cultural experience of the Japanese tradition of honoring their departed where the lights are to light up their return path. Bon Dance aficionadas know all the songs, the dances, and where the good food is. The popularity of these weekly events is so great in Hawaii, that there is one to attend every single Friday and Saturday night, and occasionally more than one on a weekend, although the missions attempt to spread them out fairly so there are fewer conflicts. But the one I attended this past weekend up in Haleiwa has to be on just two special nights of the month. The temple consults the tide schedule for an evening high tide so the lanterns will be carried out to sea by the tides and its cooling wind (and it was cool that evening). The lanterns used by this temple are hand-made by the members out of degradable paper so that they will not cause harm to the ocean (although there was a sign up that volunteers could help collect lanterns the next day, most are thought to just drift out to sea).

dancers of all ages.

I have my sister visiting with me this month, so I wanted her to get all the cultural experiences we could get in, so the event up on the North Shore at the Haleiwa Mission was doubly so due to its annual bon dance along with their own floating lantern ceremony in the waters off the AliI Beach park, right in the Temple’s own backyard. The island only had two floating lantern ceremonies – the big one on Memorial Day in Honolulu, and this much smaller, more neighborly, but very well attended one. We enjoyed the Japanese music, watching the dancers, all dressed in happi coats, and especially the children who also danced and were so anxious to participate in the traditions of their culture. When it came time for the lantern floating, we all went down to the ocean to watch the send off, being very very careful in the shore break.. cause after all… this was the North Shore and you can feel the power of the waves, even small ones, under your feet. We watched 1000 lanterns float off as far as they could go, thinking that it’s such a fitting way to stay in touch with departed loved ones.

lantern floating

Then it was back to the dance, where they surprised me by breaking’ tradition and playing the electric slide, which my sister ran out to do with the group. By then we were wanting a little snack, and since Bon Dances are known for their authentic Japanese food offerings, we checked it out. We settled on shave ice, – strawberry flavor only – and honestly, this was the best shave ice I’ve had on the island! (saying this with full knowledge of the worldwide reputation of a certain shave ice place on the North Shore).

What I’ve learned from Bon Dances is a new found appreciation for Japanese music – old and new. I’ve been able to walk into Buddhist temples and see their belief system play out in moving ceremony. The crowd is always happy and friendly, but with the solemnity that shows respect for the deceased. It’s where an experienced bon dancer will gladly show a newbie the steps to the dances and point out the best food both. People here on Hawaii Vacations during the mad rush and bustle of summer at Waikiki should check the listings and try to attend one.

Video: procession to the water and the floating of lanterns

3 COMMENTS

  1. I love O'Bon festivals!!  They are so much fun and I haven't been to one in years. Last one was on Maui in Paia. Did I mention the food!!!

  2. when we were on our way, we stopped in Wahiawa and happened upon two Honolulu women who were headed to a different bon dance and they said they were going for the food!   so yes…

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