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Planning a visit to Kauai? We regularly add news and information about events, activities, and places to see on The Garden Isle.

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Sheila Heathcote has lived in Hawaii since 1986. She's a published author on the topic of Kauai and the owner of Hale O Nanakai Bed & Breakfast.

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"O Bon Festivals" a Japanese summer cultural tradition

When I was a malahini (newcomer) to these Hawaiian Islands back in the '80s, I remember coming aross a spectacular night time festival at a local Hongwanji (Japanese church or temple) in the town of Paia, Maui. Was it the scent of jasmine incense drifting on the evening breeze? Or the beautifully adorned women in Kimono dancing in a circle to strange plunking strands of music? The lavish fruit baskets and full bottles of beer and harder spirits on grave sites? Whatever it was I was intrigued.

I had come upon my first O Bon festival, a summertime Japanese cultural celebration for the ancestors who have passed on. This 500 year old Japanese tradition was brought to Hawaii by Japanese immigrants who came to work in the sugar cane fields. 

Knowing that they could not leave their culture and history behind, they celebrated O Bon to link the living with their deceased relatives, by honoring theses spirits with dance, incense, favorite foods and preferred alcoholic beverages.

I also enjoyed watching the making of traditional mochi, rice that is pounded until it becomes a thick paste, which is then combined with sugar for a sweet and tasty treat.

At this particular event, a taiko drumming troupe performed a riveting and rousing set of traditional warrior drumming on replicas of ancient drums and other instruments.

Dressed in their black slacks and black karate-like jackets, these musicians adorned their heads with brilliant orange and white headbands to soak up the sweat produced by their enthusiastic drumming. Literally, taiko means "fat drum," although there is a vast array of shapes and sizes of taiko. Reputedly, one of the first uses of taiko was as a battlefield instrument; used to intimidate and scare the enemy.

At some O Bon celebration the Lantern Ceremony will take place. A candle is lit for a recently deceased loved one and placed in a decorative bag or open-topped lantern and set adrift on the ocean or on a body of water. The Kapa'a Lantern Ceremony I witnessed at the Wailua River several years ago was solemn and included a religious service and ceremony. The drifting lanterns were a beautiful way to remember someone.

On June 8 and 9 the Kapa'a Hongwanji Buddhist Temple will hold its annual celebration on temple grounds at 4-1170 Kuhio Highway, Kapaa. June 15 and 16 brings the O Bon to the Waimea Hongwanji at its temple at 9554 Kaumuali'i Highway, Waimea. The weekend of June 22 and 23 the Kauai Soto Zen Temple will hold its O Bon dance at 1-3500 Kaumuali'i Highway Hanapepe. Finally, on June 29 and 30 the Koloa Jodo Mission will honor the ancestors at it's temple near Koloa Big Save at 3480 Waikomo Road, Koloa.