Odori Story

by Charlene Gima

charleneandmelanieI blame Melanie for everything that came with odori (dance) and my involvement with Okinawan stuff.  It’s all her fault.  The whole thing started innocently enough with an understandable desire to participate at the Bon dances that happen every summer.  I mean participate more fully than the typical routine of “Let’s go to the Bon dance, eat lots of chow fun, admire the colorful costumes, and make a lame attempt at dancing,” which I had done all my life. Usually that was enough for us locals, but Mel wanted something more.

First, though, she wanted to attend an O-bon Buddhist service for the dead—typically held for the families of people who had died since the last year’s O-bon service.

“But why?” I asked, wrinkling my nose.  “It’s so boring.  Plus, nobody in your family passed away who’s a member of a Buddhist church here on Maui.”  Mel’s family was from Argentina, a mixture of Jewish and undecided.

“No, it won’t be boring!” Mel said enthusiastically.  I thought I glimpsed some Zen fervor in her eyes, but I didn’t know enough about the different sects of Buddhism to explain that this wasn’t going to be very Zen-like.  We ended up attending O-bon service at Mantoku-ji in Paia, where the priest chanted in a resonant monotone and occasionally banged a bowl-shaped bell made of some brassy material.  Accompanying him was a choir made up of elderly ladies who sang Buddhist hymns and made zoop-ing noises on mini-xylophones while tinkling bells on long wooden wands.  Having never seen xylophones in use in a Buddhist ceremony before, I was mildly intrigued, but Mel was a bit disappointed.

“I hate to admit it, Char, but you’re right.  That was boring,” she said sadly.  However, she thoroughly enjoyed the dancing that followed, and was ecstatic at her first taste of andagi, the deep-fried Okinawan doughnut (although I thought this sample was not the best and promised her better ones at the Okinawan O-bon).  That had been last summer.  Now, it seemed, she was feeling more ambitious.

“Let’s join the dancing!” she said, pooh-poohing my weak disclaimer that the only dance I barely knew was Tanko Bushi, the coal-miner’s dance.  “Aren’t there practice sessions?”  She knew me well enough to anticipate that I would not enjoy making a fool of myself in front of a large Bon dance crowd that probably contained a few of our students.

“Well, I know Rinzai-Zen holds practices starting in July,” I hedged.  “They usually go until their O-bon in August.”



1 thought on “Odori Story

  1. My name is Dr. Emily Moberg Robinson; I am an adjunct professor of Asian American history/studies at UC Santa Cruz. I am co-editing a book called _Voices of the Asian American Experience_; it is a collection of primary sources, with brief introductions for each. It will be published by ABC-CLIO in about a year and a half.

    Most other anthologies focus on mainland Japan Japanese-Americans, and rarely include (at least explicitly) Okinawan voices — I’m hoping to broaden the perspective in our book, partly because my mom’s side of the family came to HI from Okinawa. 🙂 I would love to excerpt “Odori Story” in our book — it brings back memories for me of my own mangled attempts at Bon dancing (ha), and I think it illustrates a wonderful perspective on the Asian American community. Is this something you would be interested in?

    Thanks for writing this piece! I really enjoyed it.


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