Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Bon Odori

Obon Odori, for those of you unfamiliar with the festival, is most easily likened to Dia de los Muertos celebrations. It is a time of remembrance and reflection; a time to honor those who have passed. Rather than mourning, it is a time to celebrate, dancing in joy at the memories we cherish.

Three years ago, after my grandfather's passing, I decided that I would dance at Obon, not just that year, but every year. I'm not sure that he would have understood my decision, even if I were able to explain, but this sort of remembrance is for the living. This year, I am dancing for a very dear friend who I think would have understood, and would have certainly loved the parade of colorful yukata and kimono that is always on display for the dancing.

My grandfather and me, taken in 2009 on one of my trips back to the East Coast.
Fran was a dear and wonderful friend to my family. She had a passion for many things, including textiles, so I wore yukata for one of my visits with her.
I had participated as a dancer in the festival several years previous to making this promise to myself; not to dance for anyone in particular, but simply to say that I had. Before that, I had been content to play the spectator, not really understanding just what had brought all of these people together.

I worried that keeping my promise would be difficult. I worried because I felt myself to be very much an outsider to this community. I worried because it seemed to me that everyone already knew all the dances and was using this as a chance to socialize. I certainly didn't know the names of anyone save perhaps one or two people, and even then, only in passing. After the first few practices, though, I realized that what I had stepped into was a very open and inviting community (Buddhists, as a friend pointed out to me, tend to be like that).

The next year, I knew more people; I had a group that I could walk to practice with, and be able to learn and dance with. Not only that, but I was recognized by others because of my various forays into Nihonmachi while in kimono. The highest compliment, of course, was having someone come up to me and say 'I remember you from last year. You look like you know what you're doing so I'm going to follow you.'

This year, the dances are familiar to me. The music plays and the steps come back easily, despite the intervening year. More faces are familiar, but there are just as many new faces who appreciate the welcoming smile that I can feel confident in offering now. Somewhere, somehow in this stretch of time, I have become part of a community. Keeping my promise will not be difficult.

Yukata worn for Saturday's dancing at Obon 2012, the year my grandfather passed. It happens to be the same one I wore to visit with Fran in the earlier photo.
For three years, I have been struggling to write this post. From the beginning, I wanted to do justice to the festival and to the community that has welcomed me. I wanted to talk about the origins of the dance in the Buddhist tradition, the dances themselves, as well as the more secular aspects of the festival-- carnival-style games and food.

Of course, I wanted to talk about yukata, especially as the light summer garment is very much a part of the identity of the festival. It's not required to dress in yukata to participate though it is encouraged and if one is unsure of how to dress properly, there are volunteers to help. There is no denying that the sight of so many colorful patterns lend a festive air to the proceedings.

Yet I struggled for three years because to talk of any of the more secular aspects without their proper grounding in the heart of the festival would have been a disservice to the whole occasion. To only talk about my own reasons for dancing would not be giving proper respect to all those who dance, have danced, and dance no more. For three years, there did not seem to be a way to write down everything I wanted to share about this time of year.

After much contemplation on how to do this properly, I found myself at the beginning; that this is a celebration of remembrance. The dance is opened and closed with Gassho: The meeting of opposites, the symbol of Dharma- the truth of life. Having acknowledged this balance, I hope that this will be only the first of several posts about Obon, which has become one of the touchstones of the circle of my year.