Okinawa Dango, an Obon Festival Favorite

Posted by on July 29, 2010 in Blog, Desserts & Treats, Wagashi | Japanese Sweets | 42 comments


As a Japanese-American child growing-up in Los Angeles, I was fortunate to be a part of a local Japanese community which provided the opportunity to experience a number of wonderful cultural traditions. My favorite summer-time tradition was, and still is, attending Obon.

Long ago when I asked my mom about the meaning of Obon, she told me that it was a time during which we remembered and honored our family members that have passed on. In our teens, my friends and I would occasionally talk about the absurdity of, in our exact (blunt) words, “celebrating the dead with a carnival”. However, it’s more than just a carnival. There’s Obon-odori (dancing) too!

The significance of Obon, or “Bon” as my Japanese relatives would say, originates from Buddhism. During our summer trips to Japan, I often overheard my aunts and uncles talking about this cousin or that cousin coming home to visit during Bon. I didn’t realize the significance of this Japanese Buddhist custom and always believed that Bon meant summer vacation.

History of Obon

According to my Google research, Bon is a Buddhist custom that dates back over 500 years and is celebrated in Japan and other parts of the world during July through mid-August. During Bon, families reunite at their ancestral homes to visit and clean the burial sites of their ancestors, as well as to welcome their ancestral spirits which are believed to visit their home altar during this time. Sounds a bit scary, doesn’t it? I’m not so sure that waiting for spirit ghosts to visit, especially in the dark, is a good idea; however, if they are friendly ancestors and loved ones, I suppose it is OK?!?

I also Googled Obon-odori and found an interesting story on Wikipedia. Mukashi-mukashi (this is how all Japanese childhood stories begin, and is similar to the English version of “once upon a time”), there was a disciple of the Buddha known as Maha Maudgalyayana, also known as Mokuren. He is believed to have used his supernatural powers to check upon the well-being of his deceased mother. To his dismay, he discovered that his mother was lost in the Realm of Hungry Ghosts where ghosts suffer extreme thirst and hunger, far worse than human suffering.

Mokuren visited Buddha and asked how he could release his mother from this horrible realm. Buddha instructed him to make offerings to the Buddhist monks on the fifteenth day of the seventh month after they completed their summer retreat. When he did this, his mother was released. Mokuren then came to see the true nature of his mother’s unselfish nature and kindness. Mokuren danced with joy because his mother was released and also because he was so grateful for her kindness. Obon-odori originates from Mokuren’s dance of joy.

Obon Today

Today, in addition to Obon-odori, the Obon festival consists of food booths, ikebana (flower arrangement) and bonsai exhibits, art displays, a craft bazar and games. When I was young, my favorite game was always kingyo sukui, a traditional Japanese game where goldfish are scooped out of the water using a special scoop made of very thin paper. It’s designed to break very easily, making it very difficult to catch the fish. I’m not sure that this game is humane, given any goldfish I won always died the next day, or the day after that.

My mom and I dressed in yukata, a casual lightweight summer kimono, for Obon. I thought that dressing-up was so much fun! My dad took this photo of us in our backyard. I am six years old.

After we moved to L.A., every summer, if we were not in Japan, we attended the West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple Obon. In addition to attending this Obon, my parents also took me to the Pasadena Obon. We lived in South Pasadena until I was three years old and my paternal grandparents still lived there, so every summer it was a tradition for us to attend this with them. My grandfather was a very active member of the Pasadena Buddhist Temple and his Buddhist Men’s Group always ran the chicken teriyaki booth. I loved that chicken teriyaki! Such great memories.

My mom and I at the WLA Obon. I’m not sure why my mom isn’t wearing her yukata in this photo. Did you notice that guy behind us with the tube socks and short white shorts?!?! He probably dates this photo in a not-so-great-way.

In high school, in addition to attending the WLA Obon, my friends and I drove (or our parents drove us) ALL over town to attend Obon festivals in Orange County, Gardena, San Fernando Valley, Downtown Los Angeles, and Venice. In the summer time, Obon was THE place to see (boys) and be seen (by boys).  :) This tradition of attending as many Obon festivals as possible continued through our college days. Post-college, however, we only attended the WLA Obon to see each other, have dinner with our families, and see old friends that we typically only saw at Obon.

One of my favorite treats at Obon is Okinawa dango, also known as sata andagi. In Okinawan dialect, saataa means “sugar”, while andaagi means “deep fried”. It’s basically a deep-fried doughnut hole made with flour, sugar and eggs. It was rarely served at the WLA Obon, but it was readily available at some of the other Obon festivals we visited, and it was always a must-visit booth.

Two weeks ago, Bebe Dada and I took Bebe E to meet our friends at the Orange County Obon. This was my first trip to the OC Obon in almost 10 years. Despite the fact that we already had plans to attend the WLA Obon (a post for the future) the following weekend, I announced that attending the OC Obon annually from now on was verrrrrry important because it was my attempt to “integrate” into The OC since this is likely where Bebe E will grow up. My friends and family laughed at this, and most of them just rolled their eyes.

Bebe Dada often says to me, ‘you can take the girl out of L.A., but you can’t take the L.A. out of the girl’. Now that is certainly the truth!

Anyway, I was very excited to find an Okinawa dango booth at the OC Obon and I actually got in a line with 30-40 people to buy these fried doughnut holes. I waited 10 minutes but realized that I was wasting my time and cutting into Bebe E’s bedtime. I decided I would make these myself at home! I used a random recipe I found online from Red Hill Elementary School in Honolulu, HI.

Okinawa Dango

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/2 cup milk

1) Combine dry ingredients in a bowl. Lightly whisk together milk and eggs. Add wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and mix until incorporated. 2) Shape dough into small balls and deep fry. okinawa dango 1a 3) Dust with powdered sugar. This is optional. Most of the Okinawa dango found at Obon are not served with powdered sugar. okinawa dango 2a

Now I’d like to share my not-so-perfect Okinawa dango. Heh-heh. Yes, readers… if anyone is still reading that is… my never-ending rambling continues! Bebe Dada said these looked like Pikachu. This is the yellow character from the Pokemon anime in case any of you are not versed in children’s anime. okinawa dango 3a

It gets worse. Look at what I did to the ones below!!!  I crack-up when I look at these photos. I can’t believe I’m posting these, but I thought it was pretty funny. In all honesty, these photos tell you everything about me. I am just your average (below average?) cooking mama and I can definitely laugh at myself.

Some of you might remember that I mentioned in my last post that I almost burned down the kitchen, twice in my lifetime. The second time was when a paper towel caught on fire. Well, it caught on fire while I was making Okinawa dango! I can laugh about it now, but in all seriousness it wasn’t funny at the time since I was screaming at the top of my lungs for Bebe Dada to hurry to the kitchen, “HOLY COW! The paper towel’s on fire!!!”

I’d like to blame the small kitchen fire for these blackened dango, but I did this before the fire. I can’t help but to laugh when I look at these. It’s disgusting, but it’s also pretty funny, isn’t it? Have you heard of kabutomushi? It’s a weird but harmless blackish-brown insect in Japan that children enjoy collecting in the summer, and some of them are actually this big. okinawa dango 4a

Since I don’t want to end this post on a burnt note, here is another look at my Okinawa dango that turned out nice and golden. Crispy on the outside, soft and cake-like on the inside.

  Have a great Obon season, and a wonderful weekend! Judy | bebe mama

Okinawa Dango
Recipe type: Dessert
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3½ teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 3 eggs
  • ½ cup milk
  1. Combine dry ingredients in a bowl. Lightly whisk together milk and eggs. Add wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and mix until incorporated.
  2. Shape dough into small balls and deep fry.
  3. Dust with powdered sugar, optional.
Recipe compliments of Red Hill Elementary School in Hawaii.


  1. avatar

    OK, I was on my way to bed but had to check this out… Adorable post and love these pics with your Mom…and these are bit sized delicacies:)

  2. avatar

    Judy I love the pics of you in your kimono! Sooo cute. Thanks for the info on Obon, I love japanese culture!

  3. avatar

    Aloha, my friend!!

    You crack me up! Love the burnt ones!! LOL Okinawa dango is one of my favorites at the carnivals and bon dances. In Hawaii, bon dances are very popular. I believe there is at least 1 or 2 at different temples or community centers around the island during the summer. My dad’s temple will be having theirs next weekend. It will be a busy weekend for sure! Lots of people attend this function every year and the food runs out!

    My mom mentioned they will need to help with Andagi this year, so maybe I’ll learn how to make this myself and eat some while helping! LOL

    Thanks for putting a smile on my face!!


    • avatar

      Hi Friend, I knew you’d get a kick out of the “kabutomushi”. LOL. Ooh, I would love to be on the islands during Obon season. The festival at your dad’s church sounds like it will be fun. When you learn how to make andagi, you’ll say to yourself, is that ALL that is! :) Have fun!

  4. avatar

    What a great post! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Love the burnt dango — glad you didn’t edit it out!

    I wish I had grown up closer to LA so I could’ve celebrated obon as a child! There wasn’t a Japanese community where I am from, and the closest one is in LA, about 3 hours away. I celebrated during my brief stay in Japan, and I loved it. Such a great atmosphere.

    Last year, we happened to be in West L.A. during obon season and some some festivities in J-town. My friend’s mom always dances the Bon-Odori with her dance group.

    You look so cute with your mom in your Yukata!

    What a good idea to make the Okinawa Dango at home instead of waiting in line! I don’t think I’ve ever had it, but it looks similar to these Portugeuse donuts we eat when in Hawaii, called Malasadas

    Anyway, have a great weekend!

    • avatar

      Thanks, Melissa! Yes, it is very similar to malsadas. We like to eat those while we are in Hawaii too! :) Thanks for the link!

  5. avatar

    I loved your story and also seeing pictures of you and your mom. I laughed at the second one (not at you) when I saw the man w/ the tube socks. I think that my dad sported that look in his younger days, LOL!

    I think it’s neat that you want to preserve your Japanese traditions and pass them on to your little girl. Whether it be through cultural events or food, I agree that it’s important.

    The Okinawa dango looks yummy! Thanks again for a very nice read, Judy.

    • avatar

      Thanks for the kind words, Jean. :) I think that tube sock look was considered “hot” back then. Heh.

  6. avatar

    mmm…love the okinawa dango. they had them at higashi’s obon too and gardena obon this weekend makes the best okinawa dangos if anyone is interested.

    i’m sure the fire scared the bleep out of you…i can laugh now too but remember when my room caught on fire in sf?

    I love the pix of you and your mom!

    • avatar

      Thanks, I wish photos from back then were of better quality so that they didn’t fade and change color.

      Good to know Gardena has the best of them, maybe someday we’ll make it out that way.

      YES! I remember your fire… Ikea lamp! This was a really little fire but I was jumping up and down, screaming, while smacking the flame with my plastic spatula. Not the smartest thing to do, and I was definitely not calm, but it got the job done and it was out before the hubby showed up.

  7. avatar

    Judy, we have an Obon Festival in Seattle too! However, I missed the event but my friends said the food was good :) You looked so cute in that kimono! Guess what, I have one as a gift from my friend in Japan. I wore it once for a Halloween hehe.

    Don’t you think Okinawa dango looks like Italian donut balls? I think they do. Thanks for sharing a recipe! I love Japanese culture and cuisine.

    • avatar

      Thank you! How cool, I think I wore a yukata one year for Halloween too. LOL.

      Yes, I think there is a similarity between the two donuts. Okinawa dango are a lot like malsadas too. There is probably a similar “doughnut” for every culture. :) They are so good, how could there not be!

  8. avatar

    BebeMama! Love the photos (esp. of you and your mom and the burnt dangos!) I’m bummed that I couldn’t make the WLA Obon to you guys. I’m gonna have to attempt these (sans the paper towel fire – hee hee!). See you soon!

    • avatar

      Hi Junko-chan! Fancy seeing you here! :) Yes, we missed you guys at Obon last weekend! It was so crowded on Sunday but my mom said it was even more crowded on Sat. night.

      Let me know how they turn out if you try them. :) See ya on Sun! xoxo

  9. avatar

    Oh Judy, you and your mom are adorable! It’s great you kept your culture and roots even though living in the US. Those balls remind me of small donuts, and they are irresistible!

    • avatar

      Thank you, Silvia! Yes, they are just like little donuts and they are very addicting. :)

  10. avatar

    These must be nice. I tried similar Deep Fried Puffs that I’d like to share with you. I tried mine with dry yeast instead of baking powder.

    Here’s the link:

    Hope you’ll enjoy.

    • avatar

      Thank you for stopping by and sharing!

  11. avatar

    I know Pikachu well! I don’t normally eat donuts but I’d like to try Okinawa dango because of your story. You’re so funny sharing the burnt ones, too! Ones culture and traditions should be kept alive – thanks for sharing your pictures and memories with us.

  12. avatar

    I remember the Bon-odori that I attended many years ago and it was a lot of fun. I don’t know if there is one here in Minneapolis. Those Okinawa dango looks yummy!

    • avatar

      Thanks, Biren! I hope you’ll find an Obon nearby that you’ll be able to visit again one day. :)

  13. avatar

    This is a very cute post, especially with the personal sharing you’ve done. Share the treats too!

    • avatar

      Thank you very much!

      • avatar

        Love your stories, especially the part when you burned the paper towels, you were screaming on top of your lungs. And the photo where you pointed out the guy wearing short white short and knee highs.
        These fried donuts looks delicious.
        Your photos with your mom in kimonos are beautiful, and those Pikachu donuts looks lovely.

  14. avatar

    Hi Judy,

    You just made up my day ;). I am Okinawa-peruvian nisei living now in Europe and to see your recipe for Sata tempura (this is how my mom used to call it) just gave me such nice memories from my childhood, seeing my mom and my aunts how they prepared the sata tempura for any festivity, like Tanabata but also for New Year.

    Thank you so much for your recipes and comments.

    With all my best wishes to you.


    • avatar

      Hi Angie, You’re so welcome, and thanks for visiting!

  15. avatar

    As soon as I saw this recipe I knew I had to try it! I just finished making a batch, and I sprinkled cinnamon and sugar on them and they are delicious! I studied abroad in Japan a couple years ago, and it’s nice to learn even more about some of the food and culture. I hope I can make my way back to Japan some day :)

    • avatar

      Oh… cinnamon and sugar sounds delicious! I hope to return to Japan someday soon too! The food is absolutely amazing there and I truly miss it.

  16. avatar

    I love Okinawa Dango (andagi as I had it growing up). It always seemed more difficult to use those huge woks at obon to make them. I have tried using taro pancake mix to make taro flavored andagi, which came out pretty good.

    I used to go to the Venice, West Covina, Gardena, and sometimes Nishi Obon when I used to live in LA to see friends and relatives. At least I got to go to San Diego and Vista this year. Only within the past few years have I danced a lot =)

  17. avatar

    Yummy! Now you’ve done it… I don’t like to deep fry at home but now I might have to since we don’t have access to andagi on demand as we did in Honolulu (Shirokiya, I miss you!). But if you ever have a chance to time your next visit to Oahu, in mid-September there is the Okinawan festival at Kapiolani Park where you can get not only andagi, but also…wait for it… Anda-dogs!! Hot dogs dipped in andagi batter. *sigh*

    • avatar

      We have been talking about a trip to Hawaii late this summer and if we indeed make the trip, I will definitely keep this festival in mind. Thank you so much for letting me know! I’ve never heard of anda-dogs but that certainly sounds like something my husband would be interested in. It sounds like a great alternative to corn dogs… something he’s not allowed to eat but loves!

  18. avatar

    Bebe Mama,
    Great site! You bring many pleasant memories back to mind.

    • avatar

      Thank you for visiting and especially for your kind words. I always enjoy hearing from readers! :)

  19. avatar

    I think i missed at what temperature you fry it at? I like the golden color of your donuts. Mine always come out on the dark side. I appreciate you posting the pictures of the unperfect ones. Gives me hope of one day making beautiful ones like you. Although, I have to admit that i like to eat the crunchy “tails”.

    • avatar

      Hi Kim, I’m so sorry, but I didn’t use a thermometer when frying these. :( I typically don’t when I deep fry in a pot and I’m not using my fryer. I did however, heat the oil on medium high and what I usually do is test the oil first by dropping bits of batter in it to see how quickly it sizzles. If it’s a quick sizzle, I go for it. The problem is, the longer it cooks on medium-high, the hotter the oil. There were a few times where I lowered the range to medium. The dango should brown at a moderate pace. If it’s too quick then the center of the dango won’t cook. I feel badly that I can’t provide more guidance than that but if I find any information I’ll post it here right away.
      Thanks again for visiting and thanks for appreciating my burnt ones. :)

  20. avatar

    I used to work at the Okinawa dango booth at the VJCC for Jr. YBA. In my opinion, the Venice Obon Matsuri was always the best one….lol. Best games and best food. I remember my mom having to make azuki for the snow cone booth right next to the dango booth. Good memories…..Would like to go back again one cay, but now living in Japan. I think the recipe has changed a bit over the years because the ones we made a little softer than the ones you can get in Okinawa. Must be the Japanese-American version. But either way, both are tasty!! I still have my Venice Jr. YBA Okinawa dango recipe. Yum. On a side note, you get better shape and size control with a small ice cream scoop.

    • avatar

      Hi! Thanks so much for stopping by and leaving a comment. We used to visit the Venice Obon annually. BUT, as a WLA girl, what can I say… I need to stay loyal to my ‘hood. LOL. Hope you’re enjoying all the wonderful eats in Japan – – – that’s my favorite travel destination! Thanks for the tip regarding the ice cream scoop! Take care!

  21. avatar

    It’s Obon time! I miss Obon. I just don’t have time anymore, but things sure change. Remember when you used to get a whole chicken leg, teriyaki chicken with gohan and tsukemono? *sigh* n more. Just some chisai no pochi! Oh well, the temple need to make some okane. I also loved the dango too, though I heard the dangos were made of mochi…Gotta hand it to the Okinawans to change dangos a bit…if it is Okinawan.

    Oh well Judy-san, great story and keep it up.