Japanese expat pays tribute to beloved great-uncle with inaugural festival

Ever since he was a young boy growing up in Tokyo, Yuhito Adachi has had a special place in his heart for the Bon Odori festival.

Bon Odori celebration to be held Saturday at Burton Cummings Community Centre

When Yuhito Adachi learned his great-uncle was dying of cancer last year, he wanted to return to Japan to attend one last Bon Odori festival. But his great-uncle, who he describes as 'brave and strong,' suggested he start one in Winnipeg. (Ian Froese/CBC)

Ever since he was a young boy growing up in Tokyo, Yuhito Adachi has had a special place in his heart for the Bon Odori festival.

He remembers visiting his beloved great-uncle every year, watching his painstaking preparations for the traditional summer celebration that dates back to the 11th century.

"He was always kind of my hero," said Adachi, who moved from Japan to Winnipeg 4½ years ago. 

When he learned his great-uncle was dying of cancer last year, Adachi wanted to return to Japan to attend one last festival. But his great-uncle, who he describes as "brave and strong," had different ideas.

"He said, 'You know what, instead of coming back to Japan, why don't you just start your festival over there?"

So that's what he did.

Japanese drummers perform on a stage during the 37th Bon Odori festival in Shah Alam, outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 2013. Japanese expat Yuhito Adachi has helped to bring the traditional summer festival to Winnipeg. (Lai Seng Sin/The Associated Press)

On Saturday, the Burton Cummings Community Centre will host Winnipeg's first Bon Odori festival. What began centuries ago as a religious celebration featuring a mixture of Buddhism and Shintoism has become a more secular community event, with dancing, drumming and Japanese food and drink.

Along with his great-uncle's wishes, Adachi said he was also motivated by a desire to help young expats, like himself, connect with the local Japanese community. When he arrived in Winnipeg, he said it took him a while to discover the Japanese Cultural Centre, which has come to play a big role in helping him adjust to his new home.

"What I wanted to do here through this event was to gather Japanese people and Japanese culture lovers … and let them know that there is a Japanese Cultural Centre and a Japanese community."

Non-Japanese welcome

Although Bon Odori is a Japanese festival, Adachi says non-Japanese people are very welcome to come enjoy the entertainment, imported beer and street food, including yakitori (barbecued chicken), yakisoba (fried noodles) and takoyaki (battered octopus). 

Even though he's only 27, Adachi said he was confident he would be able to help organize this new event in his new home. For that, he thanks his great-uncle, who died last year.

"I already kind of know what we have to do, even though it's a different country," said Adachi. "It's the system he created. If I follow, I actually [am] able to make it happen.

"He's happy, I think, because Bon Odori was very significant to him, too."

The Bon Odori festival begins Saturday at 4 p.m. and wraps up at 9. Entry is free.

With files from Nadia Kidwai