Dancing in the middle of the street with bright colored lights and lanterns swinging overhead is an annual summer experience Ron Hamakawa calls “incredibly surreal, almost magical.”
It’s a moment he, and other participants of the Bon Odori festival, which is celebrating its 88th recorded year in Seattle and is part of Seafair, will not get to enjoy this year. Like many big events this summer, the festival is going to be virtual, and it wasn’t an easy decision. The 2020 Virtual Seattle Bon Odori will stream on Saturday, July 18, starting at 4 p.m. on the Seattle Bon Odori YouTube and Facebook pages.
As someone who works in health care, Hamakawa, who is the festival chairperson, knew it was the right thing to do, but emotionally, he said it was hard to believe they had to make the festival virtual.
Bon Odori is a Japanese Buddhist festival that celebrates ancestors with a sense of gratitude and joy, said Hamakawa.
“Essentially it’s a time where we really think about those who have passed away,” he said. “Both our relatives and those who were in our lives.”
Although the festival is religiously based, Hamakawa said folks from different backgrounds enjoy the festival, too, and feel it is a critical piece of what summertime in Seattle is like.
The festival will instead stream a compilation of prerecorded dances, messages and a service to honor those who have passed, he said.
Dancing is a big part of the festival. To keep that tradition alive, instructors filmed tutorials so people at home could learn the dances that will be performed during the virtual ceremony. It was also a way for the dancers who were participating in the festival to practice, Hamakawa said.
Dance instructor and longtime Bon Odori attendee Tyler Moriguchi said filming the dance tutorials and performances was interesting and there was a learning curve in deciding how to best shoot the videos, but they were able to make it work.
“I think it turned out really well,” he said.
Moriguchi said the gym at the Seattle Buddhist Temple is usually filled for practice and he gets the chance to see a lot of people he doesn’t normally see throughout the year, but this time, only a few folks danced, which he said had a different energy.
“It’s kind of sad that we weren’t able to see our friends,” Moriguchi said.
Catching up with friends is one of his favorite parts of the festival, but he also enjoys the connection it gives him to his heritage.
“The actual festival has a powerful meaning,” Moriguchi said.
Hamakawa also expressed a similar sentiment saying it’s one of his favorite times of year. He said Bon Odori was a big deal for his grandmother and he remembers spending time with her and seeing her dressed up in a kimono and obi (sash), traditional Japanese garments, and fixing her hair before they went to the temple.
“It still brings me that sense of joy to see people connecting across generations,” Hamakawa said.
Although the festival won’t be the same this year, Moriguchi noted that part of Buddhism is about change and adapting, so they still plan to make the most of it. He said he will try to do a Google Hangout or Zoom with friends while they watch. Mostly, he hopes people will still dance along at home.
“Even though we can’t be together, I hope by doing this virtually, people will be able to do some dancing and at least be able to participate that way.”