Bon Odori brings cultural wonders to Galt Gardens


On July 18, the Buddhist Temple of Southern Alberta hosted the annual Bon Odori festival at Galt Gardens. The parkJAPANESE LANTERNS FLOAT ON THE POND IN NIKKA YUKO TO CELEBRATE TORO NAGASHI. PHOTO BY LORI ALEXANDERwas rife with cultural wonders, which approximately 200 people partook in. There were games, sushi and booths selling t-shirts, Japanese dolls, lanterns, fans and other Japanese merchandise. Bon Odori, or the Feast of Lanterns, is a time to celebrate ancestors, life, freedom and joy. The participants are encouraged to dance freely, without restraint. The Bon Odori festival stems from the story of Mokuren, a disciple of Shakyamuni Buddha, who lived over 2,500 years ago.  Mokuren discovered his deceased mother had fallen into the realm of Hungry Ghosts and was suffering. The Buddha advised Mokuren to make offerings, which freed his mother from her anguish. The monk was so happy his mother was safe he celebrated by dancing for joy.

The Japanese celebration commenced in Galt Gardens with Reverend Yasuo Izumi chanting at a Buddhist shrine. Although Bon Odori is essentially a Buddhist celebration, this was the only overtly religious ritual performed. The reverend welcomed those attending in his typically cheerful way. Mayor Bob Tarleck, who had been sitting at the shrine while the reverend chanted, also said a few words showing his continued and open support of minorities and their cultural diversity.
 Then the music began.
 The Bon Odori and Taiko drummers impressed the crowd with their technical drumming ability. The two Bon Odori drummers continued playing along with traditional and children's music as the Japanese dancers, accompanied by the reverend and mayor, danced around a raised platform. Strands of flowers and lanterns radiated from the red and white platform, adding to the celebration. The lead dancer, who danced on the platform, guided the dancers all moving in unison.
Those watching were encouraged to join. Who could resist the bubbly reverend who encouraged others to dance while claiming how easy the moves were.
Although the steps were foreign to those unfamiliar to the traditional Japanese dances, the steps were simple and quick to pick up. The dances, however, were not the unconscious, let loose kind of celebratory dances western cultures are used to. The moves were regimented, reflecting the movements of professions common in Japan, such as fishing and coal mining.
However, the most interesting aspects of the Bon Odori dances were the stories they told. One traditional Bon dance in particular, which imitates digging coal is actually the story of two lovers unable to unite as they were separated by a coal mine. The monotonous actions of the dance took on a deeper level at the realization that the actions of digging were not just a reflection of an occupation but rather a lover digging through the mine in an attempt to reach his beloved. The story enhanced the dance and piqued the interest of those dancing, telling the story of tragedy, hopefulness and inaccessible love.
After the festival in the Galt, Nikka Yuko Gardens continued the Festival of Lights by hosting Toro Nagashi from 9-11:30 p.m.. 
Toro Nagashi is a celebration done on the last night of Bon Odori. Traditionally, names of ancestors are written on the lanterns and placed on the water in an attempt to guide the spirits to where they should go. Those privileged to go to the gardens at night were provided with lanterns. Wishes were written on them and placed in the water. The lanterns floated on the pond, which looked remarkable against the backdrop of the 19 century building which was originally built in Kyoto. The bong of the bell rang throughout the hot muggy air, spreading peace and joy throughout the world.
The beautiful Nikka Yuko garden, which is known as the most beautiful traditional Japanese garden in Canada, is enchanting and serene by day and takes on a mystical quality at night. Lights illuminated the trees, streams, waterfall and structures, enhancing the ambiance.
—By Lori Alexander, the L.A. Woman