Summer festivals in the East Bay

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The annual observance of Obon in the East Bay is both a time for the area’s Japanese Americans to remember their loved ones and an opportunity for the community to learn more about Buddhism. With a high concentration of Japanese Americans living in the area, the East Bay has multiple Obon and bazaar events.

Set in Tradition
Michael Endo is the secretary to the bishop at the Buddhist Churches of America. He has been around the Buddhist Church of Oakland since he was born.

Endo said the Bon Odori attracts about 350 dancers each year. “Considering the size of the temple, we’re doing pretty good,” he said.

Steve Terasaki, chair of the Obon committee and a former president of the church, said dancers from all across the Bay Area come to dance at the temple. “We block off the streets in front of the temple for the dance … the street is completely packed with lines of dancers.”

Reaching Out to the Community
To the southeast of Oakland’s church, on the island of Alameda, the Buddhist Temple of Alameda holds its Obon festivities each year. The Bon Odori attracts around 200 people each year, according to Yumi Yasuda. “It’s getting pretty popular for people, Buddhist or not,” Yasuda said.

More people attend the temple’s bazaar, which is held on a different day. But limited parking and space limits their growth.

“We’re pretty much at max capacity,” Yasuda said.

Nonetheless, Yasuda said it has recently worked to connect with the community. Last year, the temple entered their first float in Alameda’s Fourth of July Parade, reportedly the second largest and longest Independence Day parade in the U.S. Yasuda said the float raised some interest among locals.

Reaching Milestones
Further down the Bay, the Southern Alameda County Buddhist Church in Union City is holding their temple’s 50th anniversary.

The church, started in 1962 as an off shoot of Alameda Buddhist Temple, attracts an average of 200 dancers each year, according to Karen Suyama, one of the coordinators for the church’s Obon and the Bon Odori’s head instructor.

“We formed our own taiko group 10 years ago; they play along at Obon and open our bazaar,” she said.

Older members of the church look forward to Obon each year. Mary Misaki said she has been a member of the temple for 43 years and has not missed any of the Obon festivities. “I’m 92, but even the older Nisei never miss the Obon dance.” Misaki particularly loves the children who come out to dance.

Trading Spaces
One of the more unique Obon traditions in the area is the Berkeley Buddhist Temple and the Berkeley Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple Bon Odori. The temples follow separate sects of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, but trade off in hosting their Bon Odori each year. This year, the Higashi Honganji will host the dance. The Rev. Ken Yamada, the temple’s minister, said the temple’s Bon Odori drew the most amount of people during the 1950s, when the event was established as a regular event.

“Each year we host the event, we close the street and dance in the middle of street,” Yamada said. “Some of the neighbors come out to watch — some even try it out.”

Yamada wishes to preserve the Obon traditions at his temple. According to Yamada, Obon is based on the story of Moggallana, who saved his mother from a tormented afterlife through meditation and danced for joy in succeeding. “The memorial service is a serious time for reflection, especially for those who lost relatives within the last calendar year,” said Yamada. “Our Bon Odori tends to be less of a festival and separate from our bazaar. We try to foster a more religious feeling.”

Due to a shrinking membership within the temple, the temple merged its dance with Berkeley Buddhist Temple in the 1980s.

The Berkeley Buddhist Temple went through similar hardships after enjoying a period of healthy memberships in the 1960s.

Emiko Katsumoto, co-chair of the Berkeley Buddhist Temple’s centennial celebration committee, said the Bon Odori took place at the Berkeley Civic Center at the height of the church’s history.

The temples now draw 150 to 200 dancers with both congregations combined, according to Katsumoto.

While membership has decreased, Katsumoto said their congregation is doing well. “It’s the case of many of our temples, but at the same time our sangha is getting integrated with the larger community,” she said. “I say it’s not quantity but to have quality in your sangha.”

Fundraiser to Annual Reunion
Further east in Contra Costa County, the Diablo Japanese American Club (JA Club) holds their summer festival and bazaar in Concord. While unaffiliated with a Buddhist church, the festival has its own Bon Odori, which attracts about 150 dancers each year. The Diablo Japanese American Summer Festival started as an annual fundraiser for the club to help maintain its Japanese American Religious & Cultural Center, according to Ronald Onizuka, chair of the festival.

The festival, in its 56th year, has become a tradition for locals.

“I’ve spoken to local visitors at our festival who use it as an event to coordinate their own family reunions too,” said Onizuka. “As our own members grow older they find that Festival is also a type of reunion.”

Onizuka did mention, however, that the JA Club faces challenges each year in getting the younger and newer members to take on leadership roles. “The older group of volunteers is busy or even busier each year,” said Onizuka.

Bon Odori and summer bazaars are a staple to Japanese American culture. Whether to dance, reunite with families, or remember loved ones since past, Obon has become integral to many of the East Bay Nikkei.

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