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Sunday, July 14: Georgetown Garden Walk

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Seattle Obon

7/16/16 Dancers at Seattle Buddhist Temple's Obon festival.

I look forward to Seattle’s Obon festival each July. A Buddhist event to honor ancestors and loved ones who have died, Obon (also called Bon Odori) is a time of celebration that includes dancing in the street, literally. 

Here’s the back story: Long ago, a man was grieving his mother’s death (forgive me if this story lacks detail; Sunday school was a long time ago). He was informed that his dead mother had reached Nirvana, and his grief turned to joy. So happy was he that he began dancing in the street (well, I’m sure it was a dirt road back then).

7/16/16 Taiko drummers
I don’t know if I got all of that story right, but I do know that the Obon tradition has managed to survive in many Japanese American communities. This fact astounds my Japanese friends and relatives, who see the tradition rapidly dying away in their own country. They find it hard to imagine that such an archaic, quaint festival is being kept alive in places like Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

When I was a kid, Obon was all about socializing with friends as we dressed up in traditional garb, participated in the choreographed folk dances and ate shaved ice. Back then, shorts and T-shirts were strictly forbidden; after all, it is a religious event at its core. In recent decades, though, rules have loosened to be more inclusive, and people of all races and religions join the fun. Baseball caps and jeans dance right alongside brightly colored kimono. A local taiko drumming group always performs, a highlight of the evening. You can still eat shaved ice and noodles, but you can also sit in the beer garden and listen to reggae or jazz.

As an adult, I still enjoy Obon as an occasion to see old friends and sometimes even join in the dancing. This year I enjoyed it even more because I brought my sketchbook to try to capture the color and energy.