In Japan, and other places where Japanese culture is strong, this is the time of the O-bon festival — the honouring of the spirits of dead ancestors. At this time it is common for Japanese families travel to relatives’ graves, or to set up household altars so that their spirits may visit them instead.
O-bon is celebrated with a three-day festival and a dance, Bon Odori, to welcome the spirits of the dead. While the style of Bon Odori varies from region to region, it almost always involves a large group of people circling the yagura, a kind of elevated wooden platform where the musicians stand.
Both of my Japanese O-bon experiences were in Tokyo (in 2005 and 2007) where August 15th is the official first day. Hawaii has a whole “Bon Season” that runs from June through August.
Tokyo is generally miserably hot in July and August, but I would happily sweat through another summer there to dance around the yagura and eat festival food once more. Of course, in all the festivities I did tend to forget the sober heart of O-bon — the respect and remembrance of those we have lost. Read another way, however, O-bon reminds me of the joy of being happy, healthy and alive.
As a long time citizen of the underworld, I like my entertainment to run from the bawdy to the downright obscene. Honolulu, mixed-up trickster that she is, is happy to indulge with a festival devoted to Spam and a vaudeville production of Alice in Wonderland on the same day.
The annual Spam festival, Spam Jam, blocks off the stretch of Kalakaua in front of the Royal Hawaiian Center to create a space for fans to unashamedly indulge in the canned pork product. It is a carnival of the lowbrow; low-taste. Surrounding restaurants dream up new Spam-heavy dishes and sell them at street stalls. You can buy Spam hats, Spam t-shirts, Spam slippers and Spam toys. And, on my visit, there was a live band playing Journey songs too.
Cherry Blossom Cabaret’s variety show was an ambitious mix of burlesque, music, film and aerial dance. The show was an all-knowing referential take on Alice called Alice in Chinatown. Cherry Blossom’s Alice falls down the rabbit hole and has to navigate her way through Chinatown bars–Mercury, 39Hotel, Soho–to gain entry to the Red Queen’s party. The show only ran for two weekends, which is a shame because I would love to see more of this brave, inventive theatre.