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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, July 16, 2005

Preparing for loved ones' return

By Ian Y. Kitajima


Summer is here, and so is bon dance season. But do you know about the traditional obon ceremony that precedes the better-known community dance party? Don't feel bad if you don't.

My grandfather was the bishop at the Kohala Jodo Mission on the Big Island during the early 1900s. Though I grew up around the Buddhist religion, I knew little about Buddhist traditions, which is not uncommon among sansei, or third generation Japanese-Americans. With the passing of my mother and the need to prepare for her Hatsubon, I was inspired to learn about the mysterious traditions surrounding Buddhism.

Here's a primer for everyone who ever wondered, "What is and why is there a bon dance?"

What's Hatsubon? Many of us, Japanese and non-Japanese, know about the bon dance, but very little about the traditions surrounding obon, such as Hatsubon. Hatsubon is a Buddhist ceremony commemorating the first anniversary of a loved one's passing. This special service occurs during obon, which is the yearly Buddhist tradition of remembering ones ancestors.

"Hatsu bon" literally means the first obon. Loved ones who have died during the past year will come back to this world for the first time since their passing to visit with us. Since they will return again and again, each year, to visit during obon, it's a comforting feeling.

What's an o-toba? In preparation for an ancestor's visit during obon, families will purchase a type of spiritual "hotel" for ancestors, called o-toba. During obon, loved ones will return from the Pure Land — think heaven — and stay in the o-toba like it was a hotel. On the first day of obon, special chants are performed to guide the spirits of loved ones back to the physical world. On the fourth and last day of obon, the spirits of loved ones are taken to the ocean so they can be guided back to the Pure Land.

What are the offerings in front of an o-toba? They tell a personal story about a loved one and the families who carry on the traditions. During obon, we offer our loved ones their favorite foods and drinks, favorite flowers, and incense, which is a type of spiritual food.

The Jodo Mission of Hawai'i is currently holding its obon ceremonies, through tomorrow. Families will attend a ceremony and bring offerings for their ancestors, who have been preparing to occupy their family o-toba. Families then walk upstairs into the church and attend obon service.

The Buddhist temple's bon dance is Aug. 19-20.

Ian Y. Kitajima lives in Waikele and serves on the board of directors of Jodo Mission.