Photos by Lauren Thomas
The Bon-Odori New Paltz Dance Festival returned to Hasbrouck Park in New Paltz for its fifth year last Sunday, blending dance and music from many world cultures with a traditional Buddhist festival dedicated to honoring one’s deceased forebears. Bright, sunny, breezy weather, along with singers, dancers, drummers, martial arts students and a wide array of food vendors and community organizations, welcomed visitors to the park for eight hours of idealistic fun.
The holiday known as Obon, during which Buddhists pray, feast and commune with their dearly departed in an upbeat manner reminiscent of Mexico’s Day of the Dead, falls in July in some parts of Japan and in August in others, depending on whether a solar or a lunar calendar is used to calculate the date. But its tendency to fall in early August has led to an association with the anniversaries of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and an extra layer of meaning, in which celebrants rededicate themselves to goals of peace and environmental sustainability in honor of all who died on those fateful days.
This year, New York State’s only Obon festival, right here in New Paltz, happened to fall on August 9: the date that a nuclear bomb fell on Nagasaki 70 years ago, essentially marking the end of World War II. And many Bon-Odori participants drew attention to the connections between peace and environmental sustainability, urging a commitment to nonviolent living on every possible level as a more evolved alternative to the nuclear option that ended a terrible conflict but gave rise to the Cold War and introduced radioactive pollution into the global environment.
After a musical introduction by Taiko drummer Stuart Paton, Bon-Odori New Paltz Dance Festival founder Youko Yamamoto, proprietor of the Gomen-Kudasai Noodle Shop, introduced Tomiko Morimoto West. A retired Asian Studies and Japanese lecturer at Vassar and SUNY New Paltz who lives in Lagrangeville, Morimoto West is also a survivor of the bombing of Hiroshima. “That morning of August 6, 1945, I was 13 years old,” she related. “It was a day like this: not a cloud in the sky.” She told of seeing a B-29 flying overhead, not thinking much of it, since the Americans often sent such planes on photo reconnaissance missions. But this one turned out to be the Enola Gay.
“I saw a flash, like a bright sun going down in the ocean,” she recalled. As the pressure wave from the explosion hit, she and her co-workers fell to the ground and debris began to rain down from the sky. She fled to a nearby mountain pass to wait for the fires to die down so that she could look for family members. She eventually found her grandparents taking shelter in a cave, but her mother had been crushed and partially burned when their house collapsed.
“When I left my mother that morning, I wasn’t very good,” Morimoto West said regretfully of what turned out to be their final parting. “I was 13, and I had to talk back to her. I even slammed the door when I left…. When you leave home, leave your family with a good feeling.”
Later, Yamamoto spoke of the longer-term legacies of the use and testing of nuclear weapons, of accidents and radiation leaks, of the Fukushima disaster in Japan and of Indian Point right here in the Hudson Valley. “Nuclear power is what I want to fight against. Radiation doesn’t go away; it stays on and it kills us. There have been so many deformed babies.”
Along with all the fun aspects of the Festival, including troupes performing Native American, African, Indian, Japanese and other folkdance forms, representatives of many environmental groups were on hand to bolster the anti-nuke, pro-peace, pro-sustainability message of the day. “This 70th anniversary is a good time to ask, ‘What are the renewable alternatives, the sustainable alternatives?’” said John Wackman of Solarize Hudson Valley and the Repair Café.
“It’s an absolutely perfect match with the mission of this day,” said Iris Bloom of the Coalition against the Pilgrim Pipeline and Protecting Our Waters. “Extreme energy extraction industries like shale oil and fracking gas are doing great violence to this generation and future generations.” Bloom later gave a speech on alternative energy, after SUNY New Paltz geology department professor Alvin Konigsberg gave an overview of the history of nuclear energy and explained the nuclear fuel cycle and its inherent problems.
But most of the day was given over to joyful celebration in music and movement, curated by Festival co-founder Livia Drapkin Vanaver of the Vanaver Caravan. When Assane Badji or Burlington Taiko started banging those drums, there was little question that the honored ancestors must be back among us, dancing up a storm.