Sacramento Obon boasts large attendance

Obon festivals take place at various Japanese Buddhist temples every summer, bringing together Japanese Americas, as well as some intrigued locals, increasing attendance levels for Obon festivals each year.

Not only does the Buddhist Church of Sacramento have the largest church membership within the Buddhist Churches of America, it also has up to almost 700 Japanese American and non-Nikkei attending every summer, according to the Rev. Robert Oshita, who has been a minister at the church for 28 years.

“At a certain point, you’re just finding a slot to dance in,” Oshita said. “It’s really fun.”

Oshita said that the Buddhist Church of Sacramento (also known as the Sacramento Betsuin’s) Obon festival brings in many dancers each year. The annual event serves as a reunion of sorts for former community members who were displaced when the city was redeveloped in the late 1950s, forcing the relocation of the community’s Japantown.

According to Oshita, the federal and state governments introduced a program called the “urban renewal,” which aimed to revitalize urban areas, more than 50 years ago. In the end, the Japantown and Chinatown that once flourished in downtown Sacramento was, as Oshita said, “redeveloped out of existence,” pushing its Asian community out. Included in this redevelopment project was the first Sacramento Betsuin temple founded in 1899 on O Street.

Because of the renewal project, the church built its new temple on Riverside Boulevard in 1959 with the money it received from redevelopment.

Despite being one of the larger California cities with a major Asian community but without a defined Japantown or Chinatown, Oshita believes the urban renewal project “made the spiritual sense of community stronger,” especially during the church’s annual Obon and bazaar. Oshita said these important church events have become yearly “community reunions,” relating its community resurrection to the image of a phoenix rising from the ashes.

“(Our Japantown) was demolished, and then once or twice in a year, at Obon and bazaar, the community comes to life again, if only for a night,” he said.

Oshita said that the strong “bond of appreciation” formed among the Japanese American community over the years to celebrate these events also makes Sacramento Betsuin’s Obon and bazaar special.

Apart from the attendance rate and strong sense of community at these events, the church’s Bon Odori is also unique in that its dance steps are “fairly traditional” compared to other temples in California, according to Sandra Kataoka, a current Bon Odori instructor at the Sacramento Betsuin who has been instructing since she was 17 years old.

According to Kataoka and her mother, Alice Kataoka, Alice’s sisters, Mitsue Taketa and Lily Tanabe, who were classic Japanese dance instructors at the Hanayagi School of Dance in Sacramento, created most of Sacramento Betsuin’s Obon dances. Among the 30 dances performed in today’s Bon Odori practices at the Sacramento Betsuin, Taketa and Tanabe created unforgettable dances like “Hei Sei Ondo,” where the sensu (hand fan) is used, “Fujisan Bayashi,” where the kachi-kachi is used and “Sawayaka Ondo.”

Lily Tanabe, who took over as lead instructor after Mitsue Taketa died in the 1960s, taught for more than 40 years with Alice’s other sister, Tsugiye Taketa, until the Taketa sisters stepped down by the late 1990s. Now, Donna Wong, who has been instructing for 30 years, leads Sacramento Betsuin’s Bon Odori. According to Sandra Kataoka, Wong has created four or five other Bon dances in Sacramento Betsuin’s lineup.

Oshita said Sacramento Betsuin’s group of third and fourth generation Bon Odori instructors help to create a less formal and more approachable atmosphere for their attendees.

Another major summer event for the Sacramento Betsuin is its annual bazaar, which is held exactly one month after its Obon festival. According to Oshita, Sacramento Betsuin’s Obon and bazaar have been held separately for decades. Oshita said holding the Obon and bazaar on separate days not only ensures there’s a full crew of church members working at the bazaar, but it also allows people to enjoy the Obon festival.

More importantly, Oshita said holding the two events separately helps to reinforce the meaning of Obon during the celebration.

Oshita estimates that more than 35,000 people come through the church during its bazaar weekend to enjoy the vast selection of food, which includes sushi, tempura and teriyaki chicken, as well as the game booths and the performances on the stage.

Oshita said he has the same list of must-eat foods on his mind every year.

“I always have to go in and get my fix for a steak sandwich and at some point, I have to have a chili dog,” he said with a smile.

The Buddhist Church of Sacramento will have its Obon festival on Saturday, July 14 at 7 p.m. and its bazaar Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 11-12 from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. at 2401 Riverside Blvd., Sacramento, Calif., For more information, call (916) 446-0121 or visit www.buddhistchurch.com.

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