I’ve been going to bon dances for years — in Seattle’s International District, when I lived in the Northwest, on Maui, and here.  But Friday night, I saw a new side to the obon season. Several new sides.

Husband and I joined a trio of friends who are bon dance aficionados; they go almost every weekend during obon. Obon is the summer season when the congregations of the Islands’ Buddhist temples turn their minds toward their ancestors, particularly the recently departed, and honor them in various ways, including religious rites and celebrations of their cultures in music, dance, pageantry, food and costume.

I had no idea that there was an underground of people who attend bon dances almost every July and August weekend, sometimes several in a night. They come from a wide range of ages, cultures and ethnicities. My personal favorite was the haole guy at Jikoen Hongwanji, at School and Like Like, costumed from tabi to kimono and head band, who looked like every Harley Davidson biker you’ve ever seen, complete to the tatts on his leathery arms, dancing with pleasure and skill. These folks just enjoy the dance.

I didn’t know there was a marked difference between the Okinawan observation of o-bon and that of descendents of Japanese immigrants (from Fukushima and points south, mostly). Friday night at Jikoen was my first experience of the livelier, more colorful and even a bit quirky Uchinanchu side of obon.

Later that night, at Higashi Hongwanji Hawaii Betsuin, on Alaneo and Kuakini, a Japanese temple, the dancing was more refined and sedate, the costumes more dignified (or absent), the interaction between dancers, and between dancers and musicians, more muted.

Finally, I did not realize that, for many people, the point of attending a bon dance is not the religious observance, the dancing or the pageantry. It’s the food. As we arrived at Jikoen an hour or so after the event opened, we were delighted to readily find parking. “The first shift is going home,” said my girlfriend. “They just come for the food.” Many who passed us clutched plastic take-home bags.

When I looked surprised, my friend, a foodie of Japanese ethnicity, quickly reeled off the dishes for which each temple is known: the teri corn at Honpa Hongwanji, the zenzai (sweet azuki bean soup with hot mochi balls) at the small temple on Jack Lane. Her husband, a haole who has spent a lot of time in Japan and who takes bon dance classes each year, goes for the dancing. We watched him gliding by, hands waving. “I go for the food,” she said, firmly, digging into a huge mound of cherry shave ice with a topping of runny red beans.

Later she introduced me to her friend Betty who makes andagi (Okinawan holeless donuts) for the Higashi event (Japanese and Okinawan specialties tend to cross over at festivals). I asked Betty the difference between malassadas (Portuguese holeless donuts) and andagi. (It is, by the way, pronounced ahn-da-GEE, not ahn-DAH-gy.) Malassadas, she said, contain loads of eggs, sugar, milk or cream, butter in a soft, yeasted batter. Andagi batter is simpler (flour, sugar, eggs, milk or water) and stiffer; she uses some baking powder to lighten the donuts a bit. Visiting Okinawa, she found the andagi hard as a day-old donut and much less sweet than it’s made here (though still significantly less sweet than a malassada or other Western pastries).

With Island-style aloha, she handed us a couple of sacks of still-warm golf-ball-size adangi, the paper already s0aking up the vegetable oil in which the confections were fried. The andagi sold well, she said, but they’d had less luck with two variations they tried: Andagi Dogs (stuffed with weiners — woof, woof!) and Portuguese andagi (stuffed with linguica sausage). Betty laughingly said she wanted to call them Pocho Dogs, but some worried that Portugese might be offended. (I assured her I’d have laughed with her and loved it.) Betty’s Andagi were still good for breakfast next day.

At Jikoen, determined to taste something we couldn’t get elsewhere, we passed on the waffle dogs, the crab won ton and snatched up the last four servings of juu shi mi, an Okinawan staple that’s somewhere between Chinese jook (rice gruel) and Japanese meshi (flavored rice). The dish was thick, creamy-textured, filling and easy to like; a key ingredient is sweet potato vines, greens that taste rather like lu’au leaf. The bowl of soup came with a couple of yakitori (grilled and glazed) chicken skewers for $5. We all agreed that juu shi mi is a bon dance destination dish.

How did I, of all people, not realize how integral food is to the bon dance experience, or that there is a circle of bon dance junkies or that Okinawans have more fun?

My habit has been to attend one bon dance a season — usually that of the folksy, beachside Haleiwa Jodo Mission, which includes a toro nagashi, the lantern ceremony. There is the usual dancing around the yagura, the bandstand tower where the musicians congregate, sending their voices and the sounds of their drums, flutes and stringed instruments out over the heads of the dancers. There are the traditional wooden plaques with the names of the deceased written on them in calligraphy. There is food, though, to be honest, I never paid much attention.

For me the attraction was the moment when the entire crowd would straggle out of the parking lot into the dark, threading through the temple’s side yard onto the gray sand. There, church members would wade into the water to gently release dozens of paper boats, each with its flickering candle. Each boat represents the soul of an ancestor, returned briefly for an obon visit, but destined again for the Everlasting.

I would stand, shivering a little, watching the bobbing lights as they one by one winked out, swamped by tiny, shushing waves. I’d think of my own loved ones — shocked as those good Portuguese Catholics would be to be recalled in such a context — and say a prayer for them. And I’d make the long, thoughtful drive back to Honolulu.

That was bon dance to me. But now I’m going to spend some time investigating bon dance cuisine during the remaining weeks of summer. A new menu to try!

Helpful hints:

Masa & Joyce okazu  in Kane’ohe makes juu shi mi.

Experience Okinawan dance at the annual Okinawan Festival Sept. 3 and 4; check the Okinawan Club web site, www.huoa.org.

Download a bon dance schedule at www.bondance.com/files/2011bondance-schedule-hawaii.pdf