Bon Odori dances honor ancestors
Spirits were high on Saturday as dancers performed traditional Bon Odori dances under the many Japanese lanterns at the Oregon Buddhist Temple in Southeast Portland.
Obon is a Japanese Buddhist custom dating back hundreds of years that honors one's ancestors. The festivals are held all over the country.
The Portland Obon Festival has been held annually at the temple on Southeast 34th Avenue since the event was moved from the Old Town/Chinatown area in the 1960s, according to organizers. The temple itself was founded in 1903, making it the oldest Buddhist organization in the state.
Hundreds of attendees gathered at the temple, many dressed in traditional Japanese kimonos, to observe the Bon Odori dancers at the heart of the Obon tradition.
Heidi Vorst led the Susse Fusse International Folk Dance Troup, made up of dancers age 6 and up. They wore colorful Hawaiian skirts, which are much more tolerable for dancing on a hot day than traditional heavy kimonos or international clothing.
"We chose to do Hawaiian not only because there are some Obon dances from Hawaii, but there's many Japanese people living in Hawaii, so it's a good connection that way," Vorst said.
During one performance, students danced around in a circle with wooden noisemakers, which Vorst said were to emulate the sound Japanese rice farmers make by smacking wood in the fields to scare away birds.
Vorst studied under the legendary Sahomi Tachibana, (pictured at right, inset) who at 93 was at the festival to observe the students, along with her husband, Frank Hrubant, who spoke mostly on behalf of her.
Tachibana studied and performed Bon Odori around the nation, including many years in New York City at the New York Buddhist Church. The two have been married for 68 years, and involved with the Portland Obon Fest for 26 years.
"It's important because it continues a tradition, these dances, showing the culture and also getting together," Hrubant said. "A lot of people in the community have never seen Japanese dances."
Tachibana stopped dancing in 2005, with a last performance at Bend's Tower Theater. Over the decades, she has observed the Bon Odori dances become more and more Americanized as more English is used in the music.
"This is a festival of the ancestors," Vorst said, "and it's not talked a lot in the community, but it's always held the first Saturday in August, which is closest to Hiroshima Day."
Hiroshima Day was Aug. 6, commemorating the hundreds of thousands of lives lost 72 years ago when the United States dropped an atomic bomb on that city, as well as on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, during World War II.
"I think it's important to remember history so it's not repeated. This is a joyful way to do that," Vorst said.
Read more about the festival at www.pdx-obon.com.