CAMP ZAMA, Japan (Aug. 7, 2019) -- Taking part in a Japanese festival was a bucket-list event for Sgt. Jonathan Paredes, who serendipitously arrived in the country just a few weeks before the 60th anniversary of Camp Zama's largest open-post event, the Bon Odori Festival.

Paredes, along with more than 21,000 visitors, attended the event Aug. 3 and said there could not have been a better way to start his tour in Japan than spending time with local residents.

"I've always wanted to come to Japan, so I think it's really cool that I am actually making Japanese friends here," said Paredes.

Bon season in Japan has its roots in a Buddhist custom meant to honor the spirits of one's deceased ancestors. It evolved into a sort of "family reunion" holiday during which people return to ancestral sites and celebrate the memories of those who have passed. More contemporarily, it has grown to include dances known as "Bon Odori."

Camp Zama's festival included a full day of activities and attractions, such as live music from the U.S. Army Japan Band, children's games, a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter display, food vendors and a fireworks show, which immediately followed the event's centerpiece: Bon dancing around a large wooden tower.

Masako Kawasaki, a member of the Zama City Women's Association, has been building a friendship with the Camp Zama community as a volunteer Bon dance instructor for more than two decades. Seeing more and more American participants year after year has been a gratifying experience, she said.

"I am very grateful to have been part of Camp Zama's long-celebrated Bon Odori Festival and to have danced with so many Americans for so many years," said Kawasaki.

Kawasaki said she hopes to welcome the next generation of Japanese community members to keep the traditions and the bilateral friendship between the U.S. and Japan going well into the future.

Col. Thomas Matelski, the commander of U.S. Army Garrison Japan, who arrived in Japan last month and also had his first experience with Bon Odori on Saturday, ensured he made time to attend the Bon dance lessons so that he had all the moves mastered before the festival.

As commander, Matelski said he considers the building and maintaining of a good relationship with Japan to be very important, and events like the Bon Odori Festival play a large part in making that happen.

"We have to know each other to trust each other," said Matelski. "The whole idea of 'kyozon,' or co-existence, is important."