With Zoom meetings taking the place of public gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic, there have been everything from online cocktail hours to church services, so why not virtual bon dances?
Moiliili Hongwanji Mission organizers knew how badly their members would miss its annual bon dance, which highlights the popular community-wide annual Moiliili Summer Fest every July.
To fill the void left by its cancellation, they’ve made a video to encourage their members to hold their own small celebrations at home, and provided other tangible ways for them to get into the spirit, including bentos. (It was not a livestreamed video and can be played anytime.)
Japanese immigrants brought the obon (shortened to “bon”) tradition to Hawaii, many of them settling into Moiliili, one of the oldest neighborhoods, which now encompasses people of diverse ethnicity. They all come to enjoy eating ono local favorites, playing games, and dancing to the beat of taiko drums and shamisen (three-stringed Japanese instrument) music, whether or not they know the ritual dance moves. The event is normally so large it’s held at the former Varsity Theatre parking lot, and spills out into nearby Coyne Street.
The Rev. Toshiyuki Umitani, the temple’s resident minister, said the video would never be able to duplicate the liveliness and excitement of a real bon dance, “but we’re trying to provide a little bit of it. Bon (season) is like summer has finally come! We hope people will feel the energy of summer.”
Umitani said bon season, which runs through August, “is a time for each of us to remember our departed loved ones, reflect upon our own lives, and come to a realization of the oneness (interdependence and interconnectedness) of all lives. … This year, we are not able to celebrate the obon in a traditional manner, but we still can learn what the obon teaches us.” It’s a time to realize how much their loved ones have done for them, and cultivate a sense of joy and gratitude, he added.
Other Hongwanji temples have also created bon dance videos and offered messages from their ministers, now posted on their Facebook pages: Wahiawa Hongwanji Mission’s bon dance team of 10 performed a few songs for a Zoom video and service on June 27; and the Ewa and Mililani Hongwanji temples made a joint YouTube video June 20, featuring past bon dance clips.
Moiliili’s video, shown on the temple’s YouTube channel, and runs over an hour long, includes a service, clips of past bon dances, a tutorial on basic bon dance moves and footage of several members recently filmed dancing to popular classics. They all wore masks with their happi coats and kimono, and danced around a miniature yagura (raised stage) on the front porch of the temple, under glowing pink-and-white lanterns. The temple went through great pains to get copyright approval to use recordings of Japan’s Madoka no Kai folk singers performing “Tanko Bushi” (a coal miner folk song) and “Tokyo Ondo.”
Moiliili Hongwanji Mission’s virtual July 4 bon dance had a few in-person offerings as well.
The temple’s 200-some members could also purchase pre-ordered barbecue bento, traditional bon dance towels (tenugui) and name tags in memory of deceased loved ones that were hung on the Japanese lanterns (chochin). The bon dance is the temple’s major fundraiser, but its cancellation causes Umitani to worry about finances because “what we can do is very limited.”
Ann Nakata, a longtime member who danced in the video, said she is usually in the kitchen making local favorites. “People go to bon dances because of the barbecue meat sticks, andagi (doughnuts), Spam musubi and shave ice. I think the public will miss the food.” Instead of making the labor-intensive meat sticks, she and others made 150 bentos this year, featuring the grilled meat slices marinated in the teriyaki sauce the temple is famous for, she said. Because of social distancing, they couldn’t have too many people in the kitchen at one time.
Robin Meade filmed the video, and his children Christopher, Amanda and Nicholas were among the dancers. “We hope that our virtual bon dance will provide at least some feeling of obon season and help people celebrate this tradition that adds to Hawaii’s unique sense of place,” he said.
His wife, Ann Miyasaki, used to help her father put on bon dances on Kauai, and still has a picture of her father carrying Amanda as a toddler while dancing, he said. Amanda, now 15, wore a pink kimono and danced with polish and confidence for the video, as her little brother Nicholas, in a dark blue kimono, copied each motion right behind her.
Amanda said she missed helping other members make mochi for the event and eating it. “Dancing around the big yagura is really fun; it was real nice having live music,” she added, hoping other people would dance along to the video. Nicholas, 7, said he missed eating the good food and the games, especially the fish pond at which that he could win prizes.
At Wahiawa Hongwanji, vice president Dale Shimaura said the members always highly anticipate the bon dance, which usually draws over 4,000 people over two nights, “and we wanted to bring it to them” even if it was on a virtual level.
Karen Pang and her co-instructors usually hold practice sessions for members and the community weeks prior to the dance, but since they couldn’t do it this year, they wanted to perform on video, Shimaura said. They filmed her team dancing a few songs in matching purple happi coats against a backdrop of greenery on the lanai at the home of one of the members. Among the 10 dancers was Doris Matsuoka, still energetic at age 93, who started the team. Many of Wahiawa’s membership are elderly and have been cooped up at home with not much entertainment, so they were happy to view it, Shimaura said.
The Wahiawa temple won’t be hanging 300 chochin lanterns either this year, nor attaching name tags of deceased relatives. But it is still selling memorial ribbons, which will be hung in the temple’s columbarium until the second virtual obon service Aug. 9. “Even if we can’t have a celebration, people can still honor their ancestors,” she said.
The Rev. David Fujimoto, minister of Mililani who also oversees the Ewa temple, said he was surprised so many people watched the joint video and spread the word.
“For me, it’s a gift for everyone. Of course it could not take the place of being at a dance in person, but so many people look forward to it every year.” he said.
The video gave them a moment to get away from the craziness in life and reflect on the sacrifices of the loved ones who have died, and what they’ve learned from them. No matter what life brings, “the dancing and joy should never stop; the appreciation and gratitude should never end,” Fujimoto said.