“But you have to understand that these are different dances,” I quickly warned her. “They’re not the same as the ones at Mantoku-ji or the Wailuku Jodo. This is the Okinawan O-bon, and it’s a little . . . different.”
“How are they different?” Mel wanted to know.
“Ummm . . . the songs are longer. They’re usually performed by live singers and sanshin players. And the dancers sometimes turn around and walk backwards.” Those dances had been the worst when I had attempted to dance in the ring as a child. Of course, when you’re small and cute, you’re forgiven for turning around at the wrong time and bumping into the other dancers. It’s different when you’re older and have outgrown the cute stage, but this didn’t faze Mel, who was still enthusiastic. I had some doubts about whether this activity would satisfy her or leave her bored and disappointed, like the Mantoku-ji service. But deep inside, I was happy to find a friend with whom I could risk looking stupid. Every summer at the Rinzai-Zen O-bon, I would say to my mom, “I should learn those dances,” and she would say, “You can always go to the practices, you know.” Every summer I would chicken out—but not this year.
It was a typically warm and humid Tuesday evening when I drove into the grassy field that also served as a parking lot in front of the Rinzai-Zen mission. A tall hedge was all that separated the mission from Baldwin Beach Park, the favored hangout of surfers and hippies in the Paia area. I could smell the salt of the ocean, which was no more than fifty yards away, and the iron/zinc smell-taste of seaweed was like a faint trace of blood in my mouth. Ironwood pines on the beach side were a flimsy protection against tidal waves like the one that hit in 1946. After the mission burned down in the 1980s, it was rebuilt to tsunami codes, and now it was a sturdy two-story structure made of cement blocks. A wide stairway led to the upper floor, where the temple hall was located. About twenty feet in front of the building was a small, square concrete stage with lights on slender steel poles at all four corners. The Bon dance ring had been set up around this stage with markers that sketched out a straggling ellipse around forty feet wide.
Mel was sitting on the edge of the stage, and she jumped up to greet me with a relieved smile. She must have felt very out of place as the only blond girl in a bunch of older Okinawan ladies. Up on the verandah of the temple, the sanshin players were plucking and tuning their three-stringed instruments. All the ladies were chatting, some dressed in happi coats, some with gold or silver decorated fans in their hands. A few guys were carrying out the hand-held taiko drums that helped to keep the rhythm going. In contrast, Mel and I looked like what we were: complete beginners with empty hands and nervous smiles.
With a “Yo!” from the lead singer, the introductory music began. Everyone shuffled into a ragged circle, and we followed, trying to guess which of the ladies would be a good person to copy. The three taiko players were closest to the stage, and just outside their circle were the leaders who remembered the dances. Mel and I were in the outermost ring, which had large gaps between groups of four or five dancers.
Then the music began. Afterward, Mel described it as twangy, rhythmic, and set to a musical scale and beat that seemed completely foreign and un-Western to her ears. To me it sounded familiar, half-remembered from childhood years: the music I used to fall asleep to in a living room while my grandparents and their friends played and sang the night away.