When I was little, it was just an activity my family and I did every summer. We’d stake out our plot of grass along the sloped street and my dad and younger brother would hold down the fort (and eat) while the girls danced.
I’d follow my mom around and act like I knew the moves. Of course, I’d sneak away for a few dances to eat shave ice or just sit and watch while others did the “complicated dances” that involved two folding fans.
I didn’t realize how much I enjoyed all of it.
Until every so often, we’d be out of town during Bon Odori — either visiting family in Hawaii or Japan.
I would be bummed that we wouldn’t be dancing like coal miners or fishermen.
Bon Odori, or obon, is a Japanese summer festival that involves line-type folk dancing to honor and pay respect to your deceased relatives. While it is derived from Buddhism and my immediate family is not Buddhist, I always saw it as a cultural activity we took part in. In Seattle, lots of people join in on the dances and it is now a Seafair event.
A few weeks prior to Bon Odori, I’d always tag along with my mom and her friends to bon practice, where the buddhist church leaders would teach church members and frequent Bon Odori goers the new dance of the year and refresh us on the moves from the old dances. It never seemed like a chore, I always had fun. We’d see familiar faces. (Can you spot my mom in this Seattle Times video on Bon Odori?)
One year — I was probably in middle school — we were at home getting ready for Bon Odori, and my mom realized she did not have a yukata for me. Every Bon Odori we would wear our yukatas (summer kimonos), it was just tradition. I guess mine at the time had gotten too small for me so she had given it away to a cousin and forgot to buy me a new one.
While wearing a yukata isn’t the most comfortable of clothing, it was always fun to dress up in one for one day in the year. If it’s really sunny, you get really hot. If you have to go to the bathroom, it’s kind of a big ordeal because you’re essentially wrapped up in cloth like a burrito.
I pouted and probably cried a little (aw, tweenage angst!) I wore a T-shirt and shorts and my mom also wore “regular clothes” as well. We danced all the dances and still had a good night, as always.
As I’ve gotten older, and summers have gotten busier with weddings to attend or friends visiting from out of town, or just other fun stuff, I make my best effort to block off that weekend in mid-July to go to Bon Odori with my mom and her friends. A few years ago I missed it because I went to an out-of-state ultimate Frisbee tournament. While that summer was full of fun adventures, it didn’t feel complete without going to obon.
But it’s not just the action of going to Bon Odori and celebrating summer and our ancestors with the community that draws me in. It’s going with my mom.
Last year my mom unexpectedly had to go to Japan to take care of my grandma for a majority of the summer and was gone for obon. I didn’t go to any of the practices. My dad and I sort of talked about “Oh, Bon Odori is coming up this weekend …” but we never went. Because, why would we go without mom? It wouldn’t feel right.
Recently I was asked what I like about Bon Odori.
When you’re doing the same dance moves you did as a child toddling around, there’s a sense of nostalgia. When one of my favorite songs come on, I immediately smile.
But, also, Bon Odori is the one thing I do that is “Japanese” and that my mom and I can do together.
I’m a runner. She does Pilates and tennis. I like attending sporting events. She prefers to watch them at home. (Yes, she has fallen asleep at a baseball game before.) She gardens. I hate pulling weeds.
None of our own hobbies or activities have really aligned — OK, OK, we both love traveling but it’s not like we can just take extended globe-trotting trips all the time.
But, Japanese folk dancing together has always been one we can share.