SoCal festivals make summertime joyful

DANCING FOR MILES — Miles Hamada (L) and his dancing buddy Rick Stambul. Summer is a joyful time for thousands of Nikkei in Southern California with a multitude of festivals in the community. There are numerous traditional Buddhist Obon commemorations and non-Buddhist summer celebrations that take place throughout the area, and most include some Japanese dancing. photo courtesy of Mixed Arare Productions (Osako/Ishimine)

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, most of the local Japanese Buddhist temples’ Obon festivals feature Bon Odori (dancing) and various types of entertainment, along with food, games, farmers markets, flower markets, tea ceremony and other demonstrations.

Miles Hamada, a Los Angeles resident and a Buddhist, reported that he tries to go to as many Obon festivals as he can because “it’s a remembrance of people who have passed in the last year. I try to think of people who have passed on and dance for them.”

The odori aficionado said his favorite dances are the “basic ones” like “Tanko Bushi,” and “Awa Odori” from Tokushima in Shikoku. “I enjoy dancing. I think it’s part of my culture. For Obon, I do it as a religious tradition. The main thing is to have fun, to socialize with other people and have a good time … I started dancing in the late 1970s, because I wanted to get involved in the community.”

One of the best Obon festivals is at Senshin, commented Hamada, a silkscreen printer. “That’s probably the most traditional. It has Obon service during the day, and Bon Odori, candle lighting, soba eating in the evening and taiko at the end. To me, that’s the most interesting of all of them.”

Uniquely Japanese American

Senshin Buddhist Temple (1311 W. 37th St., Los Angeles; telephone (323) 731-4617) presents its Obon festival on Saturday, July 2, with Bon Odori from 7 p.m. and a performance by Kinnara Taiko around 10 p.m., but there is no carnival. “Obon is the most important festival in the year cycle; it’s remembering the dead,” said the Rev. Masao Kodani.

According to Kodani, Obon stems from the story of Mokuren (Mogallana), a disciple of the Buddha who, while in a deep meditative state, saw his mother suffering in a hellish condition. The Buddha advised Mokuren to make an offering to his fellow monks at the end of a retreat. Then, seeing his mother released from her torment, Mokuren danced for joy. This dance of joy is seen as the original Bon Odori. The offering of clothing and food to the monks is popularly seen to be the act that affected Mokuren’s mother’s release, hence the offering of food, lights, and entertainment at Obon.

Obon in the United States is “a uniquely Japanese American phenomenon” because Nikkei followers of Jodo Shinshu didn’t bring the idea of souls from Japan, and instead they reinvented Bon Odori with a different meaning than in Japan, explained the Los Angeles-born priest. “The way we do Obon here does not exist in Japan any more. As a religious festival, it’s dead in Japan; it’s gone. It’s only done in the cities by people who are hired to dance. Outside the cities, you would have to go pretty far into the countryside to find one.

“We dance just for the joy of dancing, it’s the idea of coming together and dancing regardless of whether you could do the dance or not,” stressed Kodani. “Popular dances here are Japanese folk dances, like ‘Tanko Bushi.’ We’ll probably have 400 to 500 dancers for the odori.”

Senshin’s membership is around 400 families (maybe 450 people), with about half being older folks and the other half younger and middle-age people, said Kodani, whose parents are from Hawai‘i and ancestors from Hiroshima. “We’re a medium-size temple.”

Pasadena Buddhist Temple, one of the area’s smaller temples, hosts its Obon festival on Saturday and Sunday, July 23 (4 to 9 p.m.) and July 24 (4 to 8:30 p.m.), with Hatsubon service (for families who have lost loved ones since the last Obon) in the afternoon and Bon Odori from 6:30 each evening.

Obon is an occasion for rejoicing in liberating others and ourselves from suffering,” stated spokesperson Jeanne Toshima. “Obon Odori is to dance for joy … because our parents and ancestors made us who we are today. But mainly we dance because it’s fun, and if we are good practicing Buddhists, it doesn’t matter what we look like, because we shouldn’t worry about our egos.”

Obon has also become more of a reunion and a return to “home” for many, she continued. “People make it a point to return for this gathering to see old friends and to remember those that are no longer in this world.”

Other highlights include tea ceremony on Sunday from 4 p.m., martial arts demonstrations both days from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. and taiko performance each evening at 7 p.m. In addition, there will be ikebana and bonsai on display, a few game booths and vendors selling T-shirts, jewelry and antiques. “We will also have food booths,” Toshima added. “We have great chicken teriyaki.”

Pasadena Buddhist Church has around 150 members, Toshima estimated. The temple is located at 1993 Glen Ave., Pasadena. For more information, call (626) 798-4781 or visitwww.PasadenaBuddhistTemple.org.

Among the larger Obon celebrations are:

San Fernando Valley Hongwanji Buddhist Temple presents its popular Obon festival on Saturday and Sunday, July 2 and 3 (4 to 9 p.m. each day) at the San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center, 12953 Branford St., Pacoima.

The festival features Bon Odori, taiko performance and cultural exhibitions (bonsai, flower arranging and doll exhibits), as well as food and game booths, announced volunteer Ray Itaya.

The temple currently has 250 members, Itaya revealed. “We expect about 2,000 at the celebration each night. It gets very crowded, especially on Saturday night.”

For information, call (818) 899-4030.

Nishi Hongwanji (Los Angeles Hompa Hongwanji) Buddhist Temple, one of the region’s largest temples with about 700 members, hosts its Obon festival on Saturday and Sunday, July 9 (3 to 10 p.m.) and July 10 (3 to 9 p.m.). The event will feature entertainment, carnival, games, bingo, food and the Bon Odori.

“We expect a lot of people for the carnival, probably in the thousands,” remarked Vance Ikkanda, a member of the Obon Committee. “There will be about 1,000 dancers each night.”

The festival site is 815 E. First St., Los Angeles. For details, call (213) 680-9130.

Orange County Buddhist Church, the Japanese temple with the largest membership in Southern California at about 950 (700-plus paid members), presents its annual Obon festival on Saturday and Sunday, July 16 (2 to 9 p.m.) and 17 (2 to 8:30 p.m.), at 909 S. Dale Ave., Anaheim.

“The reason we have so many members is that we are the only temple of this Buddhist sect in all of Orange County, which covers a large area,” stated church secretary Janet Uyeno.

The highlight of the festival is the Bon Odori from 7 p.m. each night, and the celebration also includes a taiko performance, game and food booths, according to Uyeno. “We probably have about 1,000 attending our festival each day. And on Saturday night, we’ll have about 700 dancers.”

Obon is a celebration of ancestors who have passed away, Uyeno explained. “To me, Obon is also a reunion of old friends. It’s the one time of the year when I see old friends. I enjoy meeting these people I grew up with.”

For more information, call (714) 827-9590.

Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple presents its Obon festival on Saturday and Sunday, July 30 and 31 (noon to 9 p.m.), at 505 E. Third St., Los Angeles. Highlights include Bon Odori, entertainment, food and game booths and bingo.

Several thousand people are expected to attend the festival — with at least 150 dancers participating each day. The temple’s paid membership is about 400 families.

For more information, call (213) 626-4200.

Gardena Buddhist Church (1517 W. 166th St., Gardena), which annually holds the largest celebration in Southern California, has scheduled its Obon festival for Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 6 and 7. The carnival — with food and game booths and bingo — is set for 3 to 10 p.m. on Saturday and 2 to 9 p.m. on Sunday. The taiko performance is at 5 p.m., and dancing both nights is from 6 to 8 p.m.

The temple has a membership of about 700. “Because it is the last festival of the year in Southern California, we expect more than 1,000 dancers and several thousands in attendance each day,” said Kory Quon, minister‘s assistant and volunteer.

Obon is a remembrance of people who have passed on before us,” stated Quon. “It’s also a way of letting go of our egos, so that even though we don’t know how to dance, we can enjoy ourselves participating with everyone else … in a sharing of ‘one-ness.’”

For information, call (310) 327-9400.

Secular Summer Festivals

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

Nisei Week Japanese Festival, the largest Nikkei summer festival in Southern California, is set for Saturday, Aug. 13 through Sunday, Aug. 21. This community celebration of heritage and culture features the Grand Parade on Sunday, Aug. 14 (5:30 p.m.), as well as the Ondo (Community Dance Celebration) and Closing Ceremonies on Sunday, Aug. 21.

Highlights include the Coronation Ball to select the Nisei Week Queen, Awards Dinner, Pioneer Luncheon, Plaza Festival at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, a taiko performance, cultural exhibits, Baby Show, martial arts demonstrations, gyoza eating championship and karaoke.

Ondo enthusiast Hamada, as chairman for the Nisei Week Japanese dancing, coordinates teaching the public the dances for the Parade, as well as the second weekend’s Ondo and Closing Ceremonies.

“I enjoy that part of Nisei Week,” he stated. “It’s a lot of work, trying to make it the best we can. I’ve been involved in this for a really long time, probably some 15 years.”

Call (213) 687-7193 for further information.

Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute (1964 W. 162nd St., Gardena) presents its Summer Carnival on Saturday, June 25 (noon to 9 p.m.), and Sunday, June 26 (noon to 7:30 p.m.). According to Debbie Oba of GVJCI, the fundraising festival will have food and game booths, produce, plant sales, live entertainment and demonstrations, bingo and prize drawings, but no dancing.

GVJCI has about 5,000 members in the 40 various classes and organizations that use the facilities, and they expect several thousand attendees for both carnival days, Oba said. Member groups include Tomo No Kai (geared toward older adults), Japanese language school, Shin-Nisei, multiple generations of local Nikkei and people from Hawai‘i. For details, contact (310) 324-6611 or info@jci-gardena.org.

Venice Japanese Community Center hosts Natsu Matsuri (summer festival) on Saturday and Sunday, June 25-26 (noon to 9 p.m.), at 12448 Braddock Dr., Culver City. For information, call (310) 822-8885.

Long Beach Japanese Cultural Center’s Summer Festival will be on Saturday and Sunday, June 25-26, from 3 to 9 p.m., at 1766 Seabright Ave., Long Beach. For details, call (562) 437-9924.

Southeast Japanese School and Community Center’s Cultural Festival and Ondo takes place on Saturday and Sunday, July 23 and 24 (3 to 10 p.m.), at 14615 Gridley Rd., Norwalk. For information, call (562) 863-5996 or visit gakuen@sejscc.org.’

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