One of the most popular traditions associated with the Obon Season is bonodori (盆踊り) which just means “Obon Dance”. Obon is a huge outdoor, community event where people gather, and dance in a large circle. The dancing is very simple so that young and old can follow along, and pick up the steps easily. Of course, like any outdoor event, you can expect to see lots food, drinks and fun.
The idea behind Bonodori is closely tied with the story of Obon. I actually never knew this story until recently because the only time I’ve ever seen Bonodori dances was at the local Jodo Shinshu temple here in Seattle, so I just assumed it was a Jodo Shinshu tradition.
My understanding of Bonodori changed after reading issue #4 of seinto oniisan (聖☆おにいさん), a comedy starring Jesus and Buddha in modern-day Tokyo (mentioned here too). In issue 4, one segment talks about their adventures exploring Bonodori.
The main theme behind Bonodori is that according to legend the ghosts of the dead are free to leave Hell for one day. So, Bonodori is a chance for family and friends to be welcome to the dead, and relieve their suffering with good food and dance. People traditionally fashion “horses” with vegetables, particularly eggplants, and chopsticks for legs, so that the spirits could ride to/from Hell.
The manga takes a humorous look at this. Jesus, who’s excited to take part in the holiday for the first time, fashions a “horse” using broccoli and only two “legs”. The spirits who see this ask themselves “なにこれ” (what is this?). Later when Bonodori ends, the final scene shows a traffic jam of spirits riding eggplant “horses” back to Hell, with the broccoli “horse” stuck spinning round and round.
But the manga also takes a more serious look at reflecting on the those who departed, and also relating this to Buddhism as well. In the manga, the Buddha comments how the Bonodori dancing now looks so different than what his disciple Moggallana did to free his mother, but then reflects that everyone misses people who departed before them and hope to meet them just one more time. In other words, the dancing has changed, but the sentiment is the same.
Bonodori is something very important to Japanese culture in the way it weaves traditional Buddhism with Japanese culture, in a way that anyone can appreciate because we’ve all lost someone special, and it’s a nice chance to reflect on their parting.
Namu Amida Butsu