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Dancing with the Spirits


Rev. Shuji Komagata, right, beats a taiko drum during last weekend’s Bon dance. Photo by Catherine Cluett

On the lawn of the Molokai Guzeiji Soto Mission Buddhist temple, dancers stepped with slow grace in a circle beneath glowing paper lanterns and a fading sky. Families joined in the dance or enjoyed food and the company of family and friends. But there was more to the rhythmic steps than just a dance — for those in the Buddhist tradition, it was a once-a-year chance to reunite with the spirits of those who have passed.

“Bon dance is the time that we remember our departed loved ones… a time to celebrate and honor life,” said Rev. Shuji Komagata, of Oahu, who helps lead the Bon Festival on Molokai every year.

Last Saturday evening, community members gathered for the Bon dance and a performance of Somei Taiko, a drumming group led by Komagata.

For Molokai resident Miyako Yamazaki-Gray, who grew up in Japan, the Bon Festival is a chance to pass on her cultural traditions to her young daughters. She remembers participating in the Bon Festival every year when she was a child.

“When I was little I just danced, but when I came here [Molokai], I started to think about what it meant,” she said. “This is when the spirits come back to see family and dance with us.

“My kids now have the same thing I grew up with. So this is really important to me so they can still [learn their culture.]”

Yamazaki-Gray said when she first moved to Molokai, she was disappointed because the local festival is different from the way it’s celebrated in Japan. Now, she said, she has come to appreciate its “Molokai style.”

Draped from the temple roof, names of deceased love ones on slips of paper fluttered in the breeze as the beat of the drums signaled another reunion with their spirits.


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