Bon Odori: For this, it's OK to dance in the streets

OLYMPIA - Downtown Olympia celebrated summer the Japanese way Saturday night, starting with a traditional dance on Water Street and ending with a lantern-lighting ceremony on Budd Inlet near the city's new West Bay Park.

The Japanese dancing, known as bon odori, and the lantern-lighting, toro nagashi, were organized by the Olympia-Kato Sister City Association; it’s the 24th year for both events. Organizer Peter Okada introduced the dancing and explained its history to about 300 people who had gathered to watch the taiko drum performances as well as the dancing on Water Street. Okada also introduced Ginn Kitaoka, executive director of the Hyogo Business & Cultural Center in Seattle. Kitaoka talked about some of the Japanese traditions tied to summer.

According to Kitaoka:

“Obon,” as it is known in Japan, essentially is a weeklong vacation in August in which businesses and companies close, and workers go home to spend time with their families. During the week, they also pay respects to their ancestors by eating a traditional meal and visiting the cemetery, cleaning the tombstones and offering fresh food to relatives who have died. It also is a week in which many communities hold summer festivals, including bon odori dances similar to the one staged Saturday night on Water Street, Kitaoka said.

One of the larger bon odori dances in Japan is in the city of Toyama; it takes place over three nights, he said. Younger Japanese people during this week also book vacations to Hawaii and other international destinations.

About 100 people formed a circle for the first dance, dancing to a type of Japanese folk song known as minyo. The dance steps were simple: walking forward with the occasional dip or bend of the legs, along with graceful movements of the hands and arms. Audience members were encouraged to join the dance.

The Bon Odori festival has a long history in Olympia. The lantern-lighting ceremony was moved this year to West Bay Park from Capitol Lake because of concerns about the lake’s New Zealand mud snail infestation. The lighting of the lantern and setting it afloat on water is a way to say goodbye to ancestral spirits at the end of a bon festival.

Rolf Boone: 360-754-5403