Hawaii Bon Dances: A Long History of Summertime Fun!

Paper Lanterns and Crowd at a Hawaii Bon Dance

June through August

Every Friday and Saturday Evening
Multiple Locations throughout Oahu

Talk to just about anybody at a Japanese Bon dance in Hawaii, and here’s the first thing they’ll ask you: “do you come to this one every year?”  There are two reasons for this question.  First: people go to these enormously popular Hawaii festivals every year; and second: people have a tendency to participate in the festivities at many different temples from week to week or year to year.  Although there’s a temple in every community, the crowds attracted by these events are not limited to the people in those communities.

Very Large Crowd at a Hawaii Bon Dance

Obon is a Buddhist custom that originated more than 500 years ago in Japan and came to Hawaii with the Japanese immigrant workers of the nineteenth century.  This is not my native culture, so I’m not going to claim to be any kind of expert on this topic.  In fact, my first Bon dance (as a teenage boy) had more to do with a teenage girl than it did with any overriding curiosity about the cultural aspect of the event.  The girl and I never worked out.  But I still go to some Bon dances.  They’re not my all-time favorite Hawaii things to do, but I have fun when I do go.  And so do thousands of other people!

Paper Lanterns at a Hawaii Bon Dance

As I started to explain, Japanese Buddhism is a major ingredient in the stew pot of flavors that form modern Hawaii culture.  And Obon is celebrated as a time to remember your ancestors.  As a result, these festivals are very family-oriented activities; and they’re often attended by three or even four generations within each family!  Each weekend throughout the summer, one or more of the Japanese Buddhist temples (and some other organizations) throughout Hawaii hosts a one-or-two-night festival – all of which are open to the public…

Experience local style food and fun:

Shave Ice at a Hawaii Bon Dance

You don’t have to be a neighborhood resident or Japanese or Buddhist to have a good time.  Common elements from one temple to the next are tasty local treats and the Bon-Odori (Bon dance).  Beyond that, the commemorations vary from one location to the next.  Admittance is free, but you’ll want to bring some cash (not credit cards) because these events are fund raisers for the various organizations that host them – and you’re going to want to buy some andagi (Okinawan doughnuts) and possibly some other foods and souvenirs.

Bon Dance Around the Yagura

The Bon dance itself is perhaps adequately described as line dancing (like you would do at a disco or a honkey tonk or a high school dance) but in a circle, around a specially-constructed tower bandstand called the yagura.  The key difference here, however, is the music.  You probably won’t hear The Hustle or The Electric Slide.  But you will hear approximately three hours of distinctly-non-club-mix music – some live, and some recorded; some traditional, and some less so.  Better still, there’s no bar atmosphere.  So there’s no alcohol.  There’s no smoking or drugs or gangs.  It’s just good, wholesome, fun – perfect for family vacations in Hawaii.

Bon Dance Around the Yagura

Most of the participants know the dance steps because they attended practice sessions in the weeks prior to the event.  However, if you’re eager to participate and comfortable learning on the fly, you’re welcome to step right out there into the ring with everybody else.  Most dances appear to be fairly slow and simple.  Just watch the dance leaders on the innermost ring of the circle, and you’ll probably get the hang of it fairly quickly.  I, however, don’t go to dance.  I go for the food, fellowship with friends and community, and some of the other activities…

Taiko Drummers at a Hawaii Bon Dance

Many Bon Dances begin with a Taiko drum performance.  These are really cool – especially when you get a group of about 12 to 20 drummers!  Some Obon festivals include lantern parades and floating lantern services.  Some have open markets.  Some have games and crafts.

Girl in Kimono at a Hawaii Bon Dance

In addition to all this, I just really enjoy seeing so many people wearing traditional Japanese kimonos and robes while everything is decorated with bright colors and paper lanterns.  It’s a sensory experience that many Hawaii visitors will consider to be exotic and exciting.  It's definitely not required to wear traditional attire though.  Most people, myself included, show up in shorts and T-shirts.

2017 Oahu Bon Dance Schedule:

Check this 2017 Oahu Bon dance schedule for the location near you and/or your favorite place to celebrate the Obon.

June 2017:

3 (5:30pm; food booths 4:30pm): Hawaii Plantation Village94-695 Waipahu St, Waipahu

17 (7pm - 10pm; food booths 5:30pm): Ewa Hongwanji Mission91-1133 Renton Rd, Ewa Beach

23 & 24 (7pm): Wahiawa Hongwanji Mission1067 California Ave, Wahiawa

23 & 24 (6pm - 10:30pm): Honpa Hongwanji Hawaii Betsuin1727 Pali Hwy, Honolulu

30 (6pm): Moiliili Hongwanji Mission1100 University Ave, Honolulu

July 2017:

1 (6pm): Moiliili Hongwanji Mission1100 University Ave, Honolulu

1 (6pm - 10pm): Kaneohe Higashi Hongwanji45-520 Keaahala Rd, Kaneohe

7 & 8 (7pm - 10:30pm): Koboji Shingon Mission1223B N School St, Honolulu

7 & 8 (7pm - 9pm): Rissho Kosei-Kai Hawaii Kyokai2280 Auhuhu St, Pearl City

7 & 8 (7pm - 10:30pm): Shinshu Kyokai Mission1631 South Beretania St, Honolulu

7 & 8 (7:30pm - 11pm): Haleiwa Shingon Mission66-469 Paalaa Rd, Haleiwa

8 (7pm): Waipahu Hongwanji Mission94-821 Kuhaulua St, Waipahu

14 & 15 (6pm): Jikoen Hongwanji Mission1731 N. School St, Honolulu

14 & 15 (7pm): Higashi Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii1685 Alaneo St, Honolulu

14 & 15 (7pm - 10pm): Heleiwa Jodo Mission66-279A Haleiwa Road, Haleiwa

21 & 22 (7pm - 10pm): Wahiawa Ryusenji Soto Mission164 California Avenue, Wahiawa

22 (7pm): Waianae Hongwanji Mission85-762 Old Government Rd, Waianae

22 (7pm): Kailua Hongwanji Mission268-A Kuulei Rd., Kailua

28 & 29 (6:30pm - 9:30pm): Palolo Higashi Hongwanji1641 Palolo Ave, Honolulu

August 2017:

4 & 5 (5pm - 10pm): Manoa Koganji Temple2869 Oahu Ave, Honolulu

5 (7pm - 10pm): Waipahu Soto Zen Temple Taiyoji94-413 Waipahu St, Waipahu

5 (7pm): Waialua Hongwanji Mission67-313 Kealohanui St, Waialua

11 & 12 (7pm): Pearl City Hongwanji Mission858 2nd St, Pearl City

11 & 12 (6:30pm - 10pm): Shingon Shu Hawaii915 Sheridan Street, Honolulu

11 & 12 (7pm - 10:30pm): Soto Mission of Aiea Taiheiji99-045 Kauhale St, Aiea

18 & 19 (7pm - 10:30pm): Soto Mission of Hawaii Shoboji1708 Nuuanu Ave, Honolulu

18 & 19 (7pm): Mililani Hongwanji Mission95-257 Kaloapau St, Mililani

18 & 19 (6:30pm - 9:30pm): Jodo Mission of Hawaii1429 Makiki St, Honolulu

26 (6pm): Nichiren Mission of Hawaii33 Pulelehua Way, Honolulu

26 (7pm): Aiea Hongwanji Mission99-186 Puakala St, Aiea

26 (6pm - 10pm; kid games 4pm): Kapahulu Center: 3410 Campbell Ave, Honolulu

September 2017:

2 (5:30pm - 9pm): Okinawan FestivalKapiolani Park, Waikiki

16 (5:30pm - 10:30pm) Hawaii Okinawa Center: 94-587 Ukee St, Waipahu

DISCLAIMER: Calendar information is obtained directly from the various hosting organizations.  Please don't get mad at me if the dates or times change.  Instead, please send me the updated information using the "Contact" link above, and I'll post the revised information ASAP...

2017 Neighbor Island Bon Dance Schedule

For our friends on the neighbor islands, I've found the following (links open a new tab/page):

2017 Kauai Bon Dance Schedule

2017 All Islands Hongwanji Bon Dance Schedule

July 8 (6:30pm): Daifukuji Soto Mission (Kona)79-7241 Mamalahoa Hwy, Kealakekua

July 15 (6pm - 9:30pm): Guzeiji Soto Mission of Molokai"Right-hand side of Hotel Ln"

July 29 (TBD): Taishoji Soto Mission (Hilo)275 Kinoole St, Hilo

Additional Bon dance information:

Paper Lanterns Commemorating Deceased Ancestors at a Hawaii Bon Dance

Check the list above to find a Bon dance location that coincides with your dates on Oahu.  Then just plan on arriving at the event early, because parking can be a challenge.  Unless you’re one of the first to arrive, you’ll probably have to park on the street in a residential neighborhood several blocks from the temple’s location.   When you arrive at the location, remember that this is still a religious event – even if it feels like a big party – so show proper respect for everybody and act appropriately.

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