During the summer months on Oahu, as you are driving around our beautiful island, you may chance to see a Buddhist temple decorated with colorful outdoor lanterns as if in preparation for a party. In a sense that’s exactly right because the summer season here is also Obon season.
This celebration began in Japan centuries ago and is a Buddhist custom to honor the spirits of ancestors and family members who have died. Over the years it has evolved into and evening, or two, of fun, food, music, and dance. It is a celebration of life, an expression of gratitude to ancestors, and a time to visit with family and friends, all rolled into one! Since Hawaii has a large percentage of residents with Japanese ancestry or Buddhist beliefs, it is no surprise that this custom has become a part of Hawaii’s diverse cultural amalgam of traditions.
However, these celebrations are not limited to cultural ties or religious beliefs and are often joined by island visitors and residents of various backgrounds. All are welcomed to share the evening’s festivities. You will generally find a large dais or scaffolding, called a yagura, to hold the musicians and the taiko drums. Dancing takes place in a circle around the yagurs with people of all ages joining in, often wearing kiminos or hapi coats (but they are not a requirement). You will also find delicious foods such as corn on the cob, chow fun, andagi (a type of doughnut), and perhaps even shave ice, as well as games for the kids!
Some of the Buddhist temples may have a floating lantern ceremony, which is quite beautiful. Lanterns are lit and put out to sea in memory of loved ones who have passed away. In the temple itself families will offer food and light incense to honor their ancestors so please be respectful of the sacredness of this custom also. If you have occasion to attend one of the many Obon dances here during the summer, take advantage of it! We are sure you will enjoy this colorful, joyful celebration of life called Obon!