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Olympia's Bon Odori is a festival of dance, remembrance

Lorraine Hack, 9, of Olympia, gets direction in traditional Japanese dancing from Senryo Fujiyama, a dancer and instructor with Seattle's Toryo Kai dancers, during the 18th-annual Bon Odori Festival celebration on Saturday in dowtown Olympia.
Lorraine Hack, 9, of Olympia, gets direction in traditional Japanese dancing from Senryo Fujiyama, a dancer and instructor with Seattle's Toryo Kai dancers, during the 18th-annual Bon Odori Festival celebration on Saturday in dowtown Olympia. The Olympian

Olympia's annual Bon Odori festival ends each year with the launching of candlelit paper lanterns, inscribed with messages of remembrance and peace, onto the water.

This year, though, the lanterns will float not onto Capitol Lake, but out into Puget Sound.

“It is the symbolic launching of the ancestral spirits back to the spirit world,” said festival organizer Peter Okada. “The lanterns form a changing pattern of lights on the water. For the first time, we’ll be launching these floating lanterns on salt water.”

The New Zealand mud snail infestation in the lake forced the festival to move the ceremony to West Bay Park.

The participatory folk dances will happen on Water Street as usual, along with vendors selling traditional foods, an aikido demonstration and a performance by Northwest Taiko.

“The dances are very simple,” Okada said. “They are repetitive. They reflect the special activities of different regions of Japan, such as coal mining, fishing and boating.

“By the end of the evening, we usually have hundreds of people in the street.”

The Olympia festival also experienced change behind the scenes this year. The Olympia-Kato Sister City Association, which in years past has helped organize the event, is this year its sole sponsor.

“We’re not participating this year, though we hope to in the future,” said past organizer Reiko Callner of the Olympia chapter of the Japanese-American Citizens League. “We’re taking a break.”

The move to West Bay Park is not without its complications.

When the dancing portion of the festival ends, festivalgoers will be shuttled to the park in vans. The limited parking there will be filled by the shuttle vans and festival staff.

The upside of the move is that the lanterns, made of wood with paper chimneys, are likely to drift farther from shore.

“In Capitol Lake, the wind blew onto the shore, and the lanterns never got away from shore,” Okada said. But prevailing winds on the Sound are typically from the southwest, which would carry the lanterns farther.

“We hope to have a really beautiful drift, hopefully on a gentle breeze,” he added.

Regardless of what the wind does, the association is ready. Volunteers in canoes and kayaks will be on the water waiting to retrieve the lanterns.

Despite the changes to the festival, its centerpiece remains true to Bon Odori’s 1,000 years of history: the traditional folk dances celebrating the daily activities of different regions of Japan.

And they don’t change the spirit of the event, which is one of joyful remembrance – and of inviting all to join in the fun of the simple dances.

For those who might be hesitant, Okada offered these words.

“We measure our success in the feeling of the event, not in the correctness of the dancing. We say, ‘You look stupid if you dance, and you look stupid if you don’t dance, so if you’re going to look stupid, why not dance?’ ”

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