A block-long section of Fawcett Avenue will be filled with Japanese folk dances and homemade food Saturday evening. It’s a Tacoma street fair – centuries in the making.
Saturday’s Bon Odori festival is a half century old in Tacoma, but it stretches back generations in Japanese culture. Also known as Obon, the traditional summer event is held in communities all over Japan. It’s intended to honor ancestors and recently passed family members, but it’s by no means a somber event, said festival co-organizer June Akita.
“I don’t go to Obon thinking sad thoughts. I remember the good times,” Akita said.
The festival is as open to newcomers as any street fair and offers a chance for those unfamiliar with Japanese culture to watch and participate in folk dances. Homemade Japanese food and the beer garden are big draws as well. All of the entertainment is free.
The temple’s first Bon Odori festival was held in 1952, and the temple itself will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year, said the Rev. Kojo Kakihara. It’s one of 60 Japanese Shin Buddhist temples on the U.S. mainland.
On Saturday, temple members will staff a table to teach kids the art of origami, Japanese paper folding. But the main entertainment will be the folk dances.
“You don’t even have to know how to dance,” Akita said. “You can just follow along and pretend you know what you’re doing and no one will know the difference.”
Every dance has about five or six steps that are repeated. An inner circle will consist of experienced dancers and an outer circle will be for those willing to try their Japanese dance moves.
Each dance has a theme. One of the Obon dances, written by a temple member, is about Tacoma.
Kakihara and other members will sing the accompanying lyrics that speak of Mount Rainier, Japanese immigrants and the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. Geographical-themed dances are common at Obon, the reverend said. Other dances are based on the northern island of Hokaiddo, Tokyo and Kakihara’s hometown of Hiroshima.
One of the more well-known dances, tanko bushi, is known as the coal miners’ dance. “Before I came to the U.S. (in 2007), that was the only one I knew,” Kakihara said.
While the festival’s purpose and some of its dances are rooted in tradition, it’s by no means stuck in the sands of time. One of the dances is an electric slide. But this one uses a tenugui – a traditional Japanese cotton towel. Other dances uses fans and hand movements.
Temple members have been learning the dances and songs. During the festival, some will be dressed in yukatas (a lightweight summer kimono).
Nonmembers have been coming to the practices as well, Kakihara said.
“I don’t know how they get the information (about the practices). They just come,” he said.
In addition to the dancing, two taiko drum groups – Matsuri Taiko of Seattle and Fuji Taiko of Tacoma – will perform during the festival.
A candlelight memorial service in the temple’s garden will end the evening. Candles are lit in remembrance of those who have recently died. Kakihara will light several in memory of temple members who have passed in the preceding year. The reverend lit one for his own grandmother three years ago after she died in Japan, he said. But, like Akita, Kakihara doesn’t dwell on somber memories at the festival.
“It’s a fun festival based on deep gratitude to our ancestors,” Kakihara said. “Without them, we can’t have this moment.”
Tacoma Bon Odori
What: Japanese folk dance festival
When: 5-9 p.m. Saturday
Where: Tacoma Buddhist Temple, 1717 S. Fawcett Ave., Tacoma
Information: tacomabt.org, 253-627-1417
Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541