SoCal Japanese Americans anticipate joyful summer celebrations


LOS ANGELES — Japanese Americans in Southern California are gearing up for a summer of festivals — both the Buddhist Obon observances and secular summer celebrations — that include dancing and carnivals.

Obon is a traditional Japanese Buddhist event to honor and thank one’s ancestors for the gift of life. The meaning of Obon, according to the Rev. Tom Kurai of Montebello Sozenji Buddhist Temple, derives from the story of Mokuren (Mogallana), a disciple of the Buddha who, while in a meditative state, saw his late mother suffering in a hellish world and asked Buddha for help in saving her. Buddha told Mokuren to offer food to the monks who were in training, and when Mokuren gave food to the monks, his mother was released from suffering.

“Seeing this, Mokuren proceeded to dance for joy,” Kurai said. “That’s how the Bon dance started, as a dance of joy.”

What Buddhists know today as Obon was practiced in India and China, then in Japan, and eventually came to the United States, Kurai pointed out. “Part of Obon involves the offering of food — osegaki — and, of course, the Bon dance. Buddhists in Japan celebrate Obon usually in August. In the United States, since it’s used as a gathering time for family members and as a big fundraiser, all of the temples observe Obon on convenient weekends, from June to August.”

Most of the local Obon festivals feature Bon Odori (dancing), and they also offer various types of entertainment, along with food, games, produce and flower markets, and martial arts and cultural demonstrations.

Sozenji Buddhist Temple will celebrate Obon with a carnival and dancing on Sunday, July 22, from noon-8 p.m., at 3020 W. Beverly Blvd., Montebello, Calif. (323-724-6866).

Sozenji, which has a membership of 80 families, expects about 400 people to attend the festival, the Rev. Kurai reported. Highlights include Bon Odori, preschool chorus, minyo (Japanese folk singing) and taiko performances.

The Japan-born Soto Zen minister who grew up in Southern California remembers the Obon carnivals fondly. “As a teenager, I used to go to all the Obon festivals, play the games and eat the food,” he said. “It was fun. Today too, for many teenagers, it’s the thing to do.”

Many temples are doing an additional fundraising event called Manto-E (Ten Thousand Lanterns), which is dedicating a lantern to a deceased family member, donating to the temple and having the name on the lantern, a rite similar to the lanterns being floated down a river in Japan.

Kurai recently visited Fort Irwin, a military base near Barstow, to participate in their celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. “They observed something similar to Manto-E where they lit helium balloons in the shape of lanterns,” he said.

“The majority of people there are not Buddhists, but they’re practicing Buddhist tradition as a cultural kind of observance.”

Sozenji is a Soto Zen temple with spiritual ties to Japan, but is not a mission, explained Kurai. “We are an official Soto Zen temple but we don’t have administrative ties to Japan.”

Larger Obon Celebrations
San Fernando Valley Hongwanji Buddhist Temple hosts its Obon carnival on Saturday, June 30, and Sunday, July 1, from 4:30-9 p.m., at the San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center, 12953 Branford St., Pacoima, Calif. (818-899-4030).
The Jodo Shinshu temple has a membership of 250 and expects about 2,000 celebrants each night. Highlights include Bon Odori, taiko performances, cultural exhibitions and food and game booths.

Nishi Hongwanji (Los Angeles Hompa Hongwanji), which has about 800 members, will hold its annual Obon festival and carnival on Saturday, July 7, and Sunday, July 8, at 815 E. First St., Little Tokyo (213-680-9130).

Highlights of the festival include the Bon Odori both days, as well as the carnival that offers a wide variety of foods, performances starring the Nishi Child Development Center children, taiko performances, Grateful Crane Ensemble, Hawaiian and Polynesian dancers, minyo dancing and bingo.

“We expect the attendance to be 3,000-4,000 people, with about 200 dancers each night,” said Gary Kawaguchi, chairman of the temple‘s Obon Committee.

Orange County Buddhist Church will hold its Obon festival on Saturday, July 21, and Sunday, July 22, at 909 S. Dale Ave., Anaheim, Calif. (714-827-9590).

Highlights of this festival are the Bon Odori, and the taiko performance just before the dancing, according to church secretary Janet Uyeno. “We also have many game booths, and all kinds of foods.”

This Jodo Shinshu temple, the largest Japanese Buddhist temple in the region, has around 700 families as members, with another 200 or so who attend often but are not paid-up members, Uyeno reported.

“We expect at least 800 dancers each night,” she estimated. “Probably there will be a little over 1,000 people each night for the Obon carnival, because we‘re the only one having Obon that weekend.”

Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple will host its annual festival on Saturday, July 28 and Sunday, July 29, noon-9 p.m., at 505 E. Third St., in Little Tokyo (213-626-4200).

“Bon Odori symbolizes our dancing for joy,” exclaimed Rinban Noriaki Ito. “Through our remembrances of our ancestors, we realize how fortunate we are that we’ve had that karmic opportunity to enjoy life as we do. The dancing is that expression of the joy of living.”

The Odori is the “culminating event of our Obon festival,” Ito noted. “We’ve become a Little Tokyo community Obon, so we place a lot of emphasis on the entertainment. We often have June Kuramoto and members of Hiroshima come and play. We have our taiko group perform.
The entertainment highlight the last few years has been Happyfunsmile, who pattern their act on this phenomenon called Chindonya.”

Higashi Hongwanji, which has a membership of about 400 families, has had “really overflowing crowds” the last couple of years, “so when the dancing starts the people are jammed in like sardines in a can,” Rev. Ito said. “We estimate getting upwards of 5,000-10,000 people coming to the carnival … the packed feeling adds to the excitement and enjoyment. We usually have 200-300 dancers each night.”

Before the Odori starts, there will be a Manto-E service “to remind people that there is a serious, spiritual side to Obon and that we should remember our ancestors,” Ito said.

Gardena Buddhist Church presents its Obon carnival on Saturday, Aug. 4, from 3-10 p.m., and on Sunday, Aug. 5, from 2-9 p.m., at 1517 W. 166th St., Gardena (310-327-9400).

Cory Quon, minister’s assistant and volunteer at the temple that has a membership of 700 families, reported that the highlight of the festival “would have to be the Bon dancing,” which starts at 6 p.m. both days. He estimated that there will be about 1,100 dancers each night.

The carnival offers a wide variety of foods, games, cultural displays, produce market and bingo. Also scheduled are taiko performances from 4:45 p.m., prior to the dancing.

Obon honors the people who have died during the past year, Quon stated. “It’s also a way of letting go of our egos so that we’re able to participate in something that symbolizes one-ness, whether it be the dancing, or working together with people that help support the temple and pass on the dharma (the teachings of Buddha).”

Smaller Obon Festivals
Senshin Buddhist Temple Bon Odori will be held on Saturday, June 30, at 1311 37th St., Los Angeles (323-731-4617). The Bon Odori is slated for 7-9 p.m., with Kinnara Taiko performing at 10 p.m. There is no carnival. Senshin’s membership is around 400 families.

West Covina Buddhist Temple hosts its Obon carnival on Saturday, June 30, from 2-9 p.m., at the East San Gabriel Valley Japanese Community Center, 1203 W. Puente Ave., West Covina (626-913-0622). The festival features Bon Odori, a naginata demonstration, karate demonstration, performance by Kishin Daiko, and cultural exhibits, as well as food, game booths and bingo.

Zenshuji Soto Mission’s Obon festival will be held on Saturday, July 7 and Sunday, July 8, at 123 S. Hewitt St., Little Tokyo (213-624-8658).

Pasadena Buddhist Temple presents its Obon festival on Saturday, July 14 and Sunday, July 15, at 1993 Glen Ave., Pasadena (626-798-4781). The temple has about 150 members. Highlights of the festival include Bon Odori, cultural displays, performances and food and game booths.

Oxnard Buddhist Temple holds its Obon festival on Saturday, 14, from 1-9 p.m., at 250 S. H St., Oxnard (805-483-5948). Bon Odori will take place from 6-8 p.m. The festival also offers games, origami, bonsai displays, judo and karate exhibitions and taiko performance.

Valley Japanese Community Center hosts Bon Odori on Saturday, June 23 (5-10 p.m.), and Sunday, June 24 (5-9 p.m.), at 8850 Lankershim Blvd., Sun Valley (818-899-1989). The celebration includes Bon dancing, taiko performance, martial arts demonstration, minyo odori, tea ceremony, plus games and food.

Secular Summer Festivals
The largest Nikkei summer celebration in Southern California, Nisei Week Japanese Festival, takes place in Little Tokyo from Saturday, Aug. 11, through Sunday, Aug. 19. This celebration of Japanese American heritage and culture features the Grand Parade on Sunday, Aug. 12, and the Ondo (community dance celebration) and Closing Ceremonies on Sunday, Aug. 19.

Other highlights include the Coronation Ball to select the Nisei Week Queen, Awards Dinner, Pioneer Luncheon, taiko performances, cultural exhibits, Baby Show, martial arts demonstrations, gyoza eating contest and more. Call (213) 687-7193 for information.

Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute presents its carnival, JCI’s largest annual fundraiser, on Saturday, June 23, from noon to 9 p.m., and Sunday, June 24, from noon to 7:30 p.m., at 1964 W. 162nd St., Gardena (310-324-6611).

JCI serves Southern California’s South Bay area, which includes Gardena, Torrance, and coastal communities from Hermosa Beach to San Pedro. “We expect anywhere from 6,000-8,000 people to attend the carnival,” Executive Director Allison Kochiyama said.

Community organizations and classes based at JCI will lend their support to run game booths for the young and old, and at food booths. There will be indoor and outdoor entertainment, taiko performances, martial arts and cultural demonstrations, nursery and produce sale, crafts, hourly prize drawings and bingo.

Special focus will be on GVJCI Japanese Language School’s 100 Year Legacy, highlighting Moneta, Gardena and Compton Gakuen.

Venice Japanese Community Center celebrates Natsu Matsuri (Summer Festival) on Saturday, June 23 (Ondo from 6 p.m.), and Sunday, June 24 (Ondo at 5:30 p.m.), at 12448 Braddock Drive, Culver City (310-822-8885).

Long Beach Japanese Cultural Center hosts its annual Summer Carnival on Saturday, June 23, and Sunday, June 24, at 1766 Seabright Ave., Long Beach (562-437-9924).

Southeast Japanese School and Community Center will hold its 48th annual Cultural Festival and Ondo Saturday, July 28 (from 3 p.m.), and Sunday, July 29 (from 2 p.m.), at 14615 Gridley Road, Norwalk.

The festival will feature Ondo dancing from 7 p.m. on Saturday and from 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, according to Kimi Matsumoto of SEJSCC, who added, “It gets quite crowded here with the dancing.”

Other highlights include carnival games, hula dancing, taiko performance, karaoke, martial arts demonstration and bingo.
For information, call (562) 863-5996 or e-mail

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