Obon Season Begins (In-Person) at Hawaii’s Plantation Village

Kevin Y. Kawamoto

Take out your yukata, happi coats and hand-held Japanese paper fans, the Obon season is about to begin! And the place to kick off this summer-long series of cultural festivities is at Hawaii’s Plantation Village (HPV) in historic Waipahu town.

The bon odori or dance festivals, that are held at Buddhist temples and other locations throughout the state from June to early September, often attract large crowds of community members of all backgrounds and beliefs and have a long history in the islands. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Japanese immigrants brought this tradition with them from their home country to Hawai‘i’s plantation camps, where it took root and spread – like the immigrants themselves and their descendants – beyond the plantations into the wider community. It is one of many Japanese customs that persist in Hawai‘i, even as the ethnic Japanese community has become more Americanized over the decades.

In more recent times, the Obon festival at Hawaii’s Plantation Village has traditionally been the first one to occur on O‘ahu, but this year is particularly special because it is the first time since 2019 that the festival will be held in person. In 2020, it was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in 2021 it was held virtually (online) to observe the Obon season while avoiding large gatherings of people interacting in close physical proximity to one another.

“This is our first big program of the year,” said Derrick Iwata, who is planning and spearheading the event on June 4, which will take place between 4:30 and 10 p.m. on the village grounds in Waipahu. “We’ve invited other Obon dance groups on O‘ahu to come and help us welcome in the Obon season,” he said.

Iwata expects about nine dance groups to participate this year, which is almost double the number that usually do, so that a larger group of dancers can help celebrate a return to in-person festivities. This also happens to be HPV’s 30th year in existence, and an event in September that has yet to be finalized will commemorate this special anniversary.

The plaque on this Waipahu Memorial Stone reads: “Dedicated to the immigrant workers of Oahu Sugar Co. who had no families to tend to the graves.” It was originally placed at Oahu Sugar Co. Cemetery next to Waipahu Elementary School, on Waikele Road. The stone was hand carved in the 1930s by a skilled Japanese immigrant named Zenichi Karioka; calligraphy provided by Toraichi Okita. The inscription reads “Fellow countrymen who have gone before us. This tower is erected for you.”

For those who are unaware of this hidden cultural gem, HPV is located at 94-695 Waipahu Street and features a botanical garden and living history museum with 25 realistic plantation homes and structures that hearken back to Hawai‘i’s “plantation days” (1850-1950). For decades, school children, Hawai‘i residents, and visitors alike have walked through the grounds and entered the homes and community buildings of Hawai‘i’s various ethnic groups, learning from docents and getting a close-up view of historical artifacts and structures.

Among the outdoor exhibits are a Japanese furo (bath house), a Chinese kitchen, a Portuguese forno (outdoor stone oven), an Okinawan house, and the recently refurbished Wakamiya Inari Shrine, which was once a fixture in Mō‘ili‘ili where McCully Bicycle now stands on South King Street halfway between McCully and Isenberg Streets.

A citizens’ group helped to save the shrine from demolition and relocate it to Waipahu, where it later became one of the first outdoor exhibits. First erected in 1914 in Kaka‘ako, then relocated to Mō‘ili‘ili in 1918, the shrine has withstood major historical periods in Hawai‘i such as World War I, the Spanish Flu pandemic, the Great Depression, World War II and succeeding wars in southeast Asia, the political revolution in Hawai‘i of the 1950s, statehood, urbanization, the evolving economic industries in the state and so forth. Today the structure, decommissioned as a functioning Shinto shrine prior to being moved to Waipahu, serves to help educate HPV visitors about Hawai‘i’s multicultural past and the role that religious institutions played to provide spiritual sustenance and build community.

Like so many other organizations in Hawai‘i, HPV has had to endure the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, which restricted access to the grounds, exhibits and events. Despite this setback, HPV staff and volunteers are excited about the future. Iwata said that guided tours are once again “back up and running, although limited in size.”

For the June 4 Obon festival at HPV, the public will not be able to park on the village grounds. Instead, there will be remote parking locations near HPV (e.g., Hawaii Technology Academy, Waipahu Elementary School and Waipahu Soto Zen Temple Taiyoji) with shuttle service to HPV grounds.

Iwata said participants do not have to be trained dancers to take part in the dancing, but the invited dance groups will comprise the inner circles dancing around the yagura (stage in the center of the dance area). Others who are not part of the dance groups can join in at the outer rings. They can watch the trained dancers and try to imitate their movements, or just improvise to the best of their abilities.

A traditional Hawaiian hale moe (front) or sleeping house and halau wa‘a or canoe house at Hawaii’s Plantation Village accentuates the surrounding
Waipahu Cultural Garden Park.

Typically at Obon festivals, participants represent a wide range of age groups and skill levels. All are welcome, and while bon dance attire helps to create a festive atmosphere under a string of hanging lanterns, it is not required. The bon dance tradition has its roots in Japanese Buddhism, but the modern festivals in Hawai‘i are open and welcoming to people of all beliefs.

For those who are new or would like a refresher to bon odori, the internet contains a wealth of resources to prepare for this summer’s festivities. For example, last year Oahu Soto Mission’s bon dance was presented virtually on YouTube. Iwata is a professional bon dance sensei and hosted the video presentation.

“Bon is a special time for many of us here in Hawai‘i,” he said at the start of the video. “As we gather to remember and honor loved ones passed, as well as to reflect on the lives that we have today. Be it for religious, social or cultural reasons, many enjoy gathering at the temples during the summer months to dance, eat and be with family and friends.”

The YouTube video shows actual dances performed by Oahu Soto Mission members accompanied by the kind of recorded music someone is likely to hear at a bon odori, although different dance groups have their own particular dances and music. The Higashi Hongwanji group, for example, would have its own dances and songs. Mini dance practice sessions may be offered by dance groups prior to or even during the Obon season. Look for announcements.

Last year’s Soto Mission video can be accessed at youtube.com/watch?v=ia9GkZT8xaI. However, by typing in “bon dance” and “Hawaii” into the YouTube search box, the results of many other examples of bon dancing in Hawai‘i at various locations will appear dating back years.

As of this writing, in addition to the dancing at HPV’s Obon festival, there will be vendors selling an assortment of foods such as hamburgers, barbecue sticks, saimin, andagi (Okinawan donut), KC waffle dog, and shave ice. Gift shop items will be for sale, and a crafting area will be set up. Due to staffing needs, the outdoor museum portion of HPV will be off-limits during the Obon festival, but it will be open earlier in the day during regular business hours (9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays).

Hawaii’s Plantation Village’s website is hawaiiplantationvillage.org and Facebook site is facebook.com/plantationvillage/. Current and past newsletters can be found on the HPV website to learn about HPV news and upcoming events. During these uncertain times, it is always best to check with these sources closer to the date of the event to see if there are any changes in schedule or programming.

What else is on the horizon? In the March 2022 newsletter, HPV Executive Director Evelyn Ahlo mentioned a Portuguese “Festa” on August 13 and the aforementioned 30th anniversary celebration for Hawaii’s Plantation Village and Waipahu Cultural Garden Park in September. Although not produced by HPV, the annual Haunted Plantation each year in October is a Halloween fan favorite and definitely not for the faint of heart.

The takeaway message from this article is that Hawaii’s Plantation Village is alive and well – and open for business. The village gift shop, also known as the Country Store, contains both new and vintage items for sale, many available at affordable prices. They include clothing, furnishings, jewelry, ceramics, art, books, and dozens of handcrafted items made by the village crafters or donated by HPV supporters. Asian art and antique collectors might find some treasures for sale, the proceeds of which go back to helping HPV remain a valued community resource.

Stories of Hawai‘i’s plantation past often tell of the arrival of Asian immigrant groups such as the Chinese, Japanese, Okinawans, Koreans and Filipinos, but there were non-Asian immigrant labor groups as well such as the Portuguese, Puerto Ricans, and – in smaller numbers – workers from Greece, Norway, Germany and even Ukraine.

In March, KITV’s Marisa Yamane, with help from the Big Island’s Honoka‘a Heritage Center, did a news story about Ukrainian immigrants in Hawai‘i’s past. The first wave of Ukrainian immigrants arrived in 1897 and 1898, according to Yamane’s news story, “six hundred people in all, according to historians.”

There’s a road in Mountain View on the Big Island named after one of the early Ukrainian immigrants: “Pszyk Road.” Michael Pszyk and his wife Anna purchased land in 1906, cleared it, and made a trail to Volcano, according to a historian at the Honoka‘a Heritage Center featured in Yamane’s story. Many of the Ukrainians left Hawai‘i after their labor contracts ended.

The interior of this plantation house at Hawaii’s Plantation Village contains the basic cookware that was needed for a plantation-era meal.

Memories of Hawai‘i’s plantation era past may fade over time as the people who lived through that era age or pass away; but as long as Hawaii’s Plantation Village continues to thrive, the spirit of multiculturalism will live on through modern Hawai‘i’s diverse communities in a shared celebration of their cultural assets.

What you can expect to see and experience at Hawaii’s Plantation Village’s outdoor museum:

  • Chinese Society Building
  • Portuguese House
  • Portuguese Forno (Outdoor Portuguese Oven)
  • Puerto Rican House
  • Japanese Duplex
  • Tofu-ya (Tofu Store)
  • Japanese Christian House
  • Community Furo (Bathhouse)
  • Wakamiya Inari Shrine
  • Okinawan House
  • Sumo Ring
  • Barber Shop
  • Korean House
  • Filipino Dormitory
  • Filipino House
  • Garage
  • Saimin Stand
  • Plantation Store
  • Infirmary
  • Halau Waa
  • Hale Moe
  • Camp Office and Rest Rooms
  • Social Union Hall

Kevin Y. Kawamoto is a longtime contributor to The Hawai‘i Herald.

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