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Bon Odori Stake Out

By David Yamaguchi

“DAVID, YOU CANNOT WRITE ABOUT THIS,” my informant admonished. She went on to explain, “It is like matsutake-tori [the hunting of pine mushrooms]. Every family has its secrets…”

To start at the beginning of the story, we have all seen those family canopies set up at the Seattle Bon Odori, beneath which tribes take in the traditional street line-dances from the comfort of lawn chairs beneath covered awnings. Perhaps you have wondered how these come about.

Well, the back story is that those families arrive early and stake out their turf. In the not-distant past, they could arrive and set up whenever they wanted. But at some point the Buddhist Temple cracked down on the early arrivals, for they were getting in the way of set up. Lighting needs to be strung on support poles. The families posed a safety risk.

And so to make it fair for all, the good church set a timetable. Blue ground tarps and canopies cannot be set up until midnight the Friday night preceding the Saturday start of the festival. They post signs explaining these rules.

If life were simple, all families would accordingly send a set-up crew at 11:45 PM. But in practice that would not work because, well, the die-hards are human, and mostly Japanese to boot. They arrive early.

In addition to competing for spots, individual families seek out their locations of choice. For on careful consideration, the sites along the curb vary. Some lie in the shade of large trees. Others are deemed “too close to speakers,” or to the food booths, where there is too much foot traffic. Thus, the families that compete for the curb spaces each have their own pre-selected sites.

The extent to which this can go is illustrated by one story. It turns out there is a something of a sinkhole, a depression in the grass, where my guide likes to place her family. That depression “bugs her” when they are lounging on it. So one year, she and a son arrived early, stopping first at Home Depot to pick up a few bags of cheap fill dirt!

Another funny story is how one of the stake-out moms was in the church kitchen, helping the crew there chop vegetables for the festival. The moms had figured out that helping in the kitchen can be useful, because then they can use the church bathrooms. When the mom was in the kitchen, another lady came in, commenting, “There is a guy sleeping on a blue tarp outside.”

When the mom went out to see, it was her son on the family spot!

Why do families make the effort?

“Well, if I’m going to be sitting there all weekend, I want to be comfortable,” my guide explained.

Suffice it to say that the vigil is a long one. During the evening, all families have a few representatives posted on lawn chairs on the sidewalk, adjacent to their spot of choice. As the same families go for the same spots each year, adjacent families tend to know one other.

At ours, pizza and donuts were being passed back and forth between two family groups. Two young girls in the other group were practicing their Bon Odori steps. They were adept, for one is an instructor.

As the appointed hour approached, a festival representative came around to say, “You can set up now.”

And quickly, hammers came out of bags. The sound of tent stakes being pounded down rang up and down the darkened streets.

“The nail that sticks up gets pounded down,” I offered.

Once awnings and a few chairs are set up, the families can go home, for the festival has security watching the street. Still, it does mean leaving some belongings on the street overnight.

What time on Friday do the families post their first watches?

Well, on that point my lips remain sealed. For if I reveal that, then I truly will have to fear ninjas bursting through my windows in the night.


Family canopies set up at the Seattle Buddhist Temple Bon Odori.