Southern California Obon season lasts from June through August

Gardena Buddhist Church’s Bon Odori photo by Kenji G. Taguma

LOS ANGELES — Summer is festival season for Buddhists and non-Buddhists in the Japanese American community. There are numerous traditional Buddhist Obon festivals and non-Buddhist Nikkei summer celebrations all over Southern California.

Obon is a traditional Buddhist event to honor and express gratitude to one’s ancestors for the gift of life. As a celebration of the legacy passed down by one’s ancestors, the Obon festival usually features traditional Bon Odori (dancing) and various types of entertainment, along with food, games, tea ceremony and other demonstrations.

Uniquely Japanese American

Senshin Buddhist Temple (1311 W. 37th St., Los Angeles; telephone 323-731-4617) presents its Obon festival on Saturday, June 26, with Bon Odori from 7 to 9 p.m., but no carnival. “For us, it’s just dancing, and we average maybe 400-500 for the dancing,” said the Rev. Masao Kodani, who revealed that temple membership is about 350 persons. “We’re a medium-size temple. Our membership is slowly increasing.”

Bon Odori is uniquely Japanese, the Rev. Kodani explained. “No other Buddhist group does this dancing. Our school of Buddhism, Jodo Shinshu, did not have Bon Odori in Japan for doctrinal reasons — the Japanese absolutely believed that the souls of their ancestors return at Obon, but our school does not even accept the idea of a soul.”

Bon Odori is “a uniquely Japanese American phenomenon,” he said. Because Nikkei followers of Jodo Shinshu didn’t bring the idea of souls from Japan, “it was easy to reinstall Bon Odori with a different meaning than in Japan, and that’s what it is today.”

For the Los Angeles-born priest, his early memories of Obon were “just the dancing … it was the idea of coming together and dancing regardless of whether you could do the dance or not.”

One folk dance enthusiast is Richard Katsuda, a member of Senshin Buddhist Temple who goes from temple to temple on the Bon Odori “circuit” to join in the dancing.

“I grew up in Oxnard Buddhist Church and I did some Obon dancing until I was in junior high, and I enjoyed it,” Katsuda recalled. “After that, I didn’t do Bon Odori until I rediscovered it at the Mountain View Obon — I was in Northern California at the time — around 1976. I was reawakened to Obon and Buddhism, and trying to rebuild ties to the Nikkei community, so I started getting into Bon Odori, and I’ve done it since then.”

Observing the Obon schedule for the Greater Los Angeles area, Katsuda commented, “I like Senshin’s Obon because it is unique … It’s the purest in the sense that they don’t have a carnival. After the dancing, they have a candlelight ceremony. I really enjoy that beautiful sight. Just watching the 1,000 candle flames and thinking about what Obon represents, it’s a powerful feeling for me. They also have Kinnara Taiko play in the social hall afterwards.”

Another of Katsuda’s favorite Obon festivals is the one at San Fernando Valley Hongwanji Buddhist Temple (9450 Remick Ave., Pacoima; telephone 818-899-4030), slated for Saturday and Sunday, July 3-4, from 4:30 to 9 p.m. The celebration will feature Bon Odori, taiko performances, food and games and cultural exhibits.

“I really like San Fernando Valley’s Obon,” the odori aficionado exclaimed. “Their festival is nice and big. Plus it has a country feel to it, and having grown up in Oxnard, I like that.”

Expecting Thousands

Katsuda, an educator, regularly attends Nishi Hongwanji (Los Angeles Hompa Hongwanji) Buddhist Temple’s Obon festival because he works during July at its Japanese Buddhist cultural school, Saishin Dojo. “I teach sixth-graders during Obon season, so I definitely make sure to go to their Obon as well,” he said.

Nishi’s Obon takes place on Saturday, July 10 (3 to 10 p.m.) and Sunday, July 11 (3 to 9 p.m.) at 815 E. First St., Little Tokyo (telephone 213-680-9130). Bon Odori commences from 7 to 9 p.m. on Saturday and 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Sunday.

“We expect a lot of people for the carnival, probably in the thousands,” remarked Elaine Fukumoto, publicity chairperson for the event, who reported the temple has around 700 members. “There will probably be 500 to 1,000 dancers.”

Largest Temple in SoCal

Orange County Buddhist Church (909 S. Dale Ave., Anaheim; telephone 714-827-9590), the largest Nikkei Buddhist temple in Southern California with about 950 members, presents its Obon festival on Saturday and Sunday, July 17-18, announced the Rev. Marvin Harada. Featured in the festival will be Bon Odori, an “Introduction to Buddhism” talk, food and game booths, crafts for sale, entertainment and a taiko performance.

OCBC usually has about 6,000-7,000 people attending the two-day event, said the Rev. Harada. “Probably about 600 dancers participate in the odori each night. It’s a very colorful Obon festival.”

The Rev. Harada, who has been at the temple 23 years, said he has “very fond memories of Obon” while growing up in Ontario, Ore. “I enjoyed the dancing and the sense of atmosphere, and working the booths with kids my own age, setting up for the festival.”

Montebello Sozenji Buddhist Temple (3020 W. Beverly Blvd., Montebello; telephone 323-724-6866), a Soto Zen temple established in 1971, will hold its 34th annual Obon festival on Sunday, July 18. Obon service is at 2 p.m., entertainment is from 3 p.m., and there will be no carnival, announced the Rev. Shuichi Tom Kurai. Entertainment includes shigin (Chinese poetry recitation), preschool children’s chorus, ukulele, minyo (Japanese folk singing), Bon Odori and taiko.

Bon Odori is very significant because it welcomes our ancestors who’ve passed away,” stated the Rev. Kurai, who disclosed that membership (80 families or 150 individuals) is declining a little. “We expect about 300 people to attend the festivities, and we usually have about 60 people dancing.”

The Mie-ken-born priest, who came here when he was 5 and grew up in East Los Angeles, said his early memories of Obon are “about food and listening to the Bon Odori music and watching the dancing. I remember as a teenager … going to all the Obon carnivals and meeting other Japanese American young people.”

Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple (505 E. 3rd St., Little Tokyo; telephone 213-626-4200) presents its Obon festival Saturday and Sunday, July 24-25, noon to 9 p.m., announced Rinban Noriaki Ito. Bon Odori starts at 6:30 p.m. both nights. Scheduled entertainment includes taiko groups, singers and band, Lumbini preschool children singing, performance art, and festivities culminating with the Bon Odori. Noted actor Rodney Kageyama will serve as emcee.

Rinban Ito estimated that 3,000-4,000 will attend the festival — with at least 150 dancers participating — each day. The temple’s paid membership is about 400 families, with a mailing list of 1,400.

When he was growing up and living at the old temple in Boyle Heights, Calif. Ito recalled, “I always looked forward to Obon because it was like a carnival in my backyard … After becoming a minister, I realized that there is a very serious side to Obon, of honoring ancestors.”

The priest added, “The significance of Obon is the opportunity to honor all of our ancestors and to be made to realize that we are completely interconnected with them… to look into our past and realize how much we’ve received from those who lived before us.”

Obon Season’s Final Hurrah

Gardena Buddhist Church (1964 W. 162nd St., Gardena; telephone 310-327-9400) will hold its Obon Festival on Saturday, July 31 (3 to 10 p.m.), and Sunday, Aug. 1 (2 to 9 p.m.). Bon Odori starts at 7 p.m. both nights. The event will also feature food booths, bingo, games for the kids, produce and plants. “It a way of coming together as a community,” said the Rev. Naomi Nakano.

Alan Kita, chairman of the board of Gardena Buddhist Church, disclosed that membership is around 700 people. “I think about 3,000 people will be attending Obon. We’ll have 1,000 dancers, about 1,000 people watching the dancing and about another 1,000 people in the carnival area.”

“Basically, all 13 Jodo Shinshu temples dance the same dances, and they may add one or two for their own festival,” Kita explained. “Members from Jodo Shinshu temples can go to other temples to participate in Bon Odori because they all learn the same dances. These are all members of the Buddhist Churches of America. Higashi Honganji, which is not a Nishi Hongwanji temple, also does the same dances.”

“I really like Gardena’s Obon,” Katsuda, of the Senshin Buddhist Temple, remarked. “It’s like the final hurrah for the Obon season too, so I generally try to make it to Gardena.”

Part of going to all these Obon festivals is that “it’s what Obon represents, remembering ancestors and remembering the past,” he stated. “And also, I just love the folk dancing, the whole feeling of Obon where old friends come together, maybe once a year during Obon time. Just the whole atmosphere I find really appealing, something I really enjoy.”

Included among Katsuda’s favorite dances is “Obon no Uta” or “Obon Odori.” “I really like that one. Generally, I like the dances that are a little more spirited, and have good movements,” the ondo aficionado stated. “Another one of my favorites is ‘Shiawase Samba,’ as well as ‘Haru Koma.’ ‘Sakura Ondo’ is another dance that I really like.”

“I love Obon season,” Katsuda exclaimed. “It’s probably the favorite time of the year for me. It’s summertime and I’m off from regular school and teaching Saishin Dojo, which is a program I really enjoy. It’s a fun season for me.”

Secular Celebrations

Popular non-Buddhist summer festivals include Nisei Week Japanese Festival and Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute’s Summer Carnival.

The largest Nikkei summer festival in Southern California, the 70th annual Nisei Week Japanese Festival is set for Aug. 14-22. This community celebration of heritage and culture features the Nisei Week Grand Parade on Sunday, Aug. 15, through the streets of Little Tokyo, as well as the Ondo and Community Dance Celebration on closing day.

Other highlights include the Coronation Ball to select the Nisei Week Queen, Awards Dinner, Pioneer Luncheon, taiko performance, cultural exhibits, Baby Show, martial arts demonstrations and karaoke. Call (213) 687-7193 or visit www.niseiweek.org for further information.

Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute (1964 W. 163nd St., Gardena) holds its Summer Carnival on Saturday, June 26, from noon to 9 p.m., and on Sunday, June 27, from noon to 7:30 p.m. According to Alison Kochiyama, executive director of GVJCI, the festival will have food and game booths, produce, plant sales, live entertainment and demonstrations, but no public ondo dancing. Students in classes such as Japanese dance, ukulele, hula, Okinawa taiko, and some of the martial arts will provide entertainment.

GVJCI has about 5,000 members in the 40 various classes and organizations that use the facilities, and they expect 8,000-9,000 attendees for both carnival days, Kochiyama said. Member groups include many Shin-Nisei, multiple generations of local Nikkei and people from Hawai‘i. For details, contact (310) 324-6611 or info@jci-gardena.org.

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