THEN AND NOW: Obon throughout the years in California’s Central Valley

CENTRAL TO SUMMER — Sacramento Taiko Dan performs at the Sacramento Betsuin’s Obon festivities. photo by Alan S. Wada

California’s Central Valley has always had a large Japanese American population. Many Buddhist temples and Japantowns were founded in the Central Valley, as Japanese farmers and Asians of other origins flowed in.

After World War II, many people of Japanese descent returned to the Central Valley and picked up the pieces from their previous life. Over the years the Buddhist temples served as not only religious hubs, but also as community hubs.

As California enters its summer months, many of its Buddhist temples gear up for their summer festivities. The celebrations have changed over the years and each temple and church celebrates them a little differently.

 

In the Past

Buddhist temples throughout the Central Valley have celebrated Obon in some capacity for a number of years. The festival is a newer trend comparatively, but some dancing traditions predate the war.

According to the Buddhist Church of Florin, their records state that its first Obon celebration was in 1933, led by the Rev. Iwao Iwanaga. The church was formed in 1918, when the Japanese immigrant population was beginning to increase.

More often than not, however, many of the festivities that are known today are events that took root after the war.

Lodi Buddhist Church reports their first Obon festival was held some time after the war. According to the Rev. Katsuya Kusunoki, Lodi’s minister from 1955 to 1960, the Rev. Kakumin Fujinaga, started the Obon festival by selling udon, adding to the pre-established dance festivities. Kusunoki said that the Young Buddhist Association was in charge of the udon sales.

Since then, the communities’ Obon celebrations have changed with the times. The Obon festivities in the Central Valley have evolved over the last half-century; the churches are adding a focus on educational outreach, a contemporary twist to the event, or even adapting to their changing demographics.

 

The New Kids on the Block

When one thinks of Obon, the image of yukata (summer kimono) and paper lanterns come to mind. In the most traditional Nikkei sense, there is also chicken teriyaki dinners and shave ice. For most, the idea of hip-hop dancing at a Japanese festival to commemorate lost loved ones, is somewhat alien.

The Buddhist Church of Sacramento Betsuin is by far the most avant-garde with its hip-hop Obon dance. While it is not an officially sanctioned part of the Obon program, the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Youth Activities of the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA), which holds its summer youth retreat at Sacramento Betsuin, featured a hip-hop Obon dance. The dance combined the Bon Odori moves the kids learned from their respective churches and set it to contemporary hip-hop songs like Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite.”

Every year a little more than a dozen youth, ages 16 to 20, gather in Sacramento. According to the Rev. Peter Inokoji-Kim, two groups of youth organized a “hip-hop Obon dance” to perform during the Obon festival intermission.

“I guess as sort of a team building activity, they got together and made this dance in their free time,” said Inokoji-Kim. “I don’t know how they found the ‘free time’ … but when they get together and try to mesh, and they’re in sync — it’s awesome.”

They have performed a hip-hop dance twice in the last four years, and while it’s no requirement for the youth, Inokoji-Kim said that he wouldn’t be surprised if there were more similar performances to come.

Likewise, the Buddhist Church of Lodi incorporates both the modern and the traditional with a performance of break dancing on top of gagaku and taiko. Kusunoki, who will perform with the Northern California Gagaku group, will also give his visitors in Lodi a short church tour and a mini lecture on Buddhism during the festivities.

 

Back to the Roots

More Obon festivities are starting to include educational components such as Kusunoki’s mini sermons as more people outside of Nikkei communities are growing interested in Buddhism and Obon.

The Buddhist Church of Florin and the Florin chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) have collaborated for the past four years to hold the Florin Obon Workshop, which provides a short introduction to teaching the public about the religious background of Obon and its nuances, including lessons on how to tie an obi (kimono sash). The event takes place in conjunction with one of the Obon dance practices that are scheduled throughout the month of July every year.

Cheryl Miles was inspired by a new generation of Obon dancers coming to the festival, and decided to attend and aid the workshop. Miles, a Hanayagi dance instructor who leads the Obon dance for the festival, has taught the dance for 25 years at the festival.

“I’ve been dancing in the Florin Obon since I was eight,” she said. She and her sister, Michelle Takeda, have seen young dancers grow up over the years. They hope to pass on the tradition to future generations.

Miles mentioned two individuals who have danced since they were 3. They have gone off to college and returned. Miles hopes those dancers will continue the tradition.

However, while the mechanical movements and the motions of the dance have been preserved, Miles did not know why she was really dancing. With the help of Andy Noguchi from the Florin JACL, the Buddhist Church of Florin created the workshop to teach the “why” behind Obon festivals.

In last year’s workshop, Inkoji-Kim from Sacramento spoke to a group of 50 people, including families and college students, about the religious background behind the dancing. He shared the story of the Buddhist monk Moggallana, who danced for joy after his pious way of life rescued his dead mother from hell. The dancing was the original inspiration for Bon Odori in Japan, where spirits of dead ancestors are called back from the spirit world to return home.

Miles, who has attended all four workshops, says she learns something new every year. She has also volunteered to teach how to wear yukata.

The Fresno Betsuin Buddhist Temple also goes back to the basics, though they do so with the sale of paper lanterns for Obon festival visitors.

Over the past five years, the Fresno Betsuin has sold more than 1,000 white memorial paper lanterns to its visitors. The Rev. Nobuo Miyaji uses a calligraphy pen to write out the names of loved ones who have passed away — on the lanterns, which are displayed during the festival. The church initially sold the lanterns as a way to show children the traditional elements of remembering ancestors, but the lanterns’ popularity have grown. The church has even started selling lanterns for deceased pets.

 

Location, Location

Fresno has also seen a recent change in their Obon traditions: The festivities have moved from their temple on Kern Streeet in Fresno to their new Family Dharma Center in Clovis. Lee Osaki, the temple’s office manager, said the move to Clovis was because of the concentration of families in the congregation in Clovis. The new complex opened in January of 2010, and the Obon festivities moved there that year.

The move was a hit. While the new location is larger, the attendance has doubled last year and the Fresno Betsuin Buddhist Temple says they are running out of room.

 

Changing Communities

While the interest of Central Valley Nikkei in Obon has grown, many congregations are also finding that a more diverse group of attendees — many from outside the Nikkei community — are attending the festivities.

Along with the increase in attendance, Fresno is seeing a more ethnically diverse crowd. Compared to the mostly Nikkei congregation at the church, the festival attendees are more varied. Florin’s workshop also cites that non-Nikkei college students have participated, allowing the traditions to continue.

Obon festivities help keep some older community members connected. In the 1950s the city of Sacramento was one of the first cities to undergo “urban renewal.” With it, the city was rebuilt and refashioned without regard to ethnic minorities who lived in the cities.

“Our J-Town and Chinatown were redeveloped out of existence,” said the Rev. Robert Oshita of the Buddhist Church of Sacramento Betsuin. “I have a theory that the Sacramento Betsuin has come to embody the JA community in Sacramento.”

Oshita believes that the Nikkei’s lack of a physical gathering in the Sacramento area has led the annual Obon to become something local Japanese Americans rallied around. Sacramento has also experienced an increase in more non-Nikkei attendees, however.

In a region populated by many Japanese Americans, yet with no central community center outside of its churches, the Central Valley may look toward its Obon festivities as a religious tradition, a central rallying point and culmination of local Japanese arts, culture and food.

 

Buddhist Church of Lodi’s Obon Festival and Bazaar will be held on Saturday, June 25 from 3 to 8 p.m. and Sunday, June 26 from 3 to 8 p.m. at 23 North Stockton St. Lodi, Calif. For more information, call (209) 368-5589 or visit www.lodibuddhist.org.

Fresno Betsuin Buddhist Temple’s Obon Festival and Bazaar will be held on Saturday, July 9 from 2 to 10 p.m. at 2720 East Alluvial Ave. in Clovis, Calif. For more information, call (559) 442-4054 or visit fresnobuddhisttemple.org.

Buddhist Church of Sacramento Betsuin’s Bon Odori will be held on Saturday, July 9 from 7 to 9 p.m. and the 65th annual Bazaar will be held on Saturday, Aug. 13 and Sunday, Aug. 14 from noon to 9 p.m. at 2401 Riverside Blvd., Sacramento, Calif. For more information, call (916) 446-0121 or visit www.buddhistchurch.com.

Buddhist Church of Florin’s mini Obon festival will be held on Saturday, July 16 from 1 to 10 p.m. at 7235 Pritchard Road in Sacramento, Calif. They will also host the Obon Workshop on Tuesday, July 5 from 5:30 to 7 p.m. before their Obon dance practice. For more information, call (916) 383-1831 or visit http://florinbuddhist.org.

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