New Paltz celebrates its third Japanese Bon-Odori Festival (with photo gallery)

[portfolio_slideshow id=5495]

Photos by Lauren Thomas


Under mostly clear blue skies and towering puffy white clouds — which eventually gave way to rain — New Paltz celebrated its third Japanese Bon-Odori Festival last Sunday. Festival goers gathered to get Reiki massage, check out great food from Sukhothai and Gomen Kudasai and to hear live music.

For Youko Yamamoto, the woman behind both Gomen Kudasai and the festival, the event is about bringing people together. “Obon” is a Buddhist tradition in Japan, where family members gather from Aug. 13-15 to dance and remember those who’ve died.

Bon-Odori in New Paltz has always been something of a cultural exchange. While Yamamoto and her husband Kazuma Oshita started the festival to keep their native traditions alive, they also did so with the desire to reach out to their neighbors.


“We came from Japan to learn about America,” she explained. “I’m sure that Americans would love to learn about Japan.”

Yamamoto’s vision for the festival has been one of peace and inclusiveness. So for 2013, organizers reached out to Spirit of Thunderheart, an all-woman Native American drumming group. The women opened up the ceremony with traditional songs.

Donna Coane, the lead drummer of Spirit of Thunderheart, said the gesture meant a lot to their band. The women have roots from all of the “Four Directions,” claiming members with Mohawk, Blackfoot and Cherokee blood.

Japanese culture also has an affinity for drums. At festivals, like an Obon, the Taiko drummer is looked to as the center of celebration.

One treat at the festival was “kakigori” — Japanese shaved ice. Somewhat similar to a snow cone, the ice ball is doused with sweet sauce. Gomen Kudasai was serving organic green tea and raspberry flavored kakigori at the festival.

Another delight of the festival was the music. Breakfast for the Boys (formerly Aubrey and The Morpho Blues Band) played funk and soul covers and originals early in the day. Spirit of Thunderheart introduced people to Native American songs. Taiko drummer Stuart Paton displayed the traditional Japanese musical style.

In keeping with the spirit of remembrance, Bon-Odori this year was dedicated to those who’ve lost their lives in nuclear warfare or nuclear accidents. The Fukushima nuclear disaster from 2011 still weighs heavily on Japanese Americans. For Yamamoto, who has some ties to the area, the radioactive fallout is personal.

“It was a manmade disaster,” she said. “They didn’t need to have that plant there.”

Fukushima went into multiple meltdowns after a 9.0 magnitude earthquake hit and caused a massive tsunami. As many as 15,000 people died, and more than 3,200 went missing. Nuclear disasters for Japan aren’t new. Innocent Japanese also suffered horrendously in 1945, during World War II, after the U.S. military dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In Fukushima, even those who’ve evacuated safely are stuck with mortgages on irradiated, unsellable houses and land. Fears of birth defects, mutations in plants and animals, and the toxic environment in that area are ever-present.

The New Paltz Bon-Odori Festival was promoting a message of world peace, nuclear disarmament and an end to nuclear power. For Yamamoto, the local nuclear reactor at Indian Point is an issue.

“It’s happening right now,” she said. “If something happens to Indian Point, it’s the same thing.”

Environmentalists Ann and Dan Guenther were featured speakers at the festival. They asked their audience to consider alternative, green energy options. They also spoke against hydrofracking.

Also during the festival, Abbot Monshin Paul Naamon, from the Tendai Buddhist Institute in East Chatham, performed a special peace ceremony.

Organizers hope to expand on Bon-Odori next year by bringing in more vendors and providing space to those against the use of genetically modified crops.

To read more about the festival, head to