Bon Odori is a tradition even far from the West Coast

Bon Odori after Sakura Matsuri, in front of the Tri-State Denver Buddhist Temple
photo by Gil Asakawa

Japanese Americans who don’t live on the West Coast joke that you can go to a different Bon Odori every weekend in California, and dance away your summer. Not so in the geographically isolated Rocky Mountain region, where a few cities such as Denver, Salt Lake City and some other smaller towns host Obon festivals only once a year. But they’re hugely important traditions for these places.

That’s because although many Obon are combined with a Japanese cultural festival that serves as a fundraiser for the sponsoring Buddhist temples, it’s the religious roots of Bon Odori that have kept the tradition alive for decades.

Tri-State Denver Buddhist Temple was founded in 1916. In 1973, the temple added a sakura matsuri, a Cherry Blossom Festival, to showcase Japanese culture, arts and food at its newly-constructed home in Sakura Square in downtown Denver. The weekend-long cultural event was combined with the Obon, with dancing scheduled for Saturday evening after the day’s entertainment.

“When Obon was run by itself, it was a huge deal but it was internal,” explained Donna Inouye, the temple’s administrative director.

Once the Sakura Matsuri was added, she said, the event grew exponentially. By 2016, the temple decided to separate the Cherry Blossom Festival from Bon Odori, which is now held on a different evening.

Not only did moving the Obon bring back the original community scale of the dancing, it allowed the fujinkai members who were always stuck in the temple’s kitchen or food prep areas getting ready for the second day of the festival, to participate in Obon.

“When Sakura Matsuri started, it required so much manpower and resources, so we started the combination with Obon. But it grew to the point where it was overwhelming. Now, Obon is back to its religious roots, and Cherry Blossom can be more of a festival, and it’s more attractive to the community as a whole because it’s not strictly Buddhist,” Inouye said.

Denver’s Sakura Matsuri, which will be held June 22-23 this year, attracts between 25,000-35,000 people over the weekend. About 100-200 people join the Bon dance, to be held this year on July 20, but that audience is growing as more people learn about the separate event.

Temple board member Joni Sakaguchi added, “We used to have a lot of the outlying temples participate too. I remember everybody would dress in kimono or yukata and we’d have practice for two weeks prior. We really practiced. That’s what I remember.”

Troy Watanabe, assistant minister for the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple, says his city’s Obon dances began not long after the temple was established. “We’re on the same street but the original temple was dedicated in 1912 and the new temple was built in 1962.” The temple sits in what used to be part of the city’s Japantown district.

The Salt Lake Obon, a one-day event planned this year for July 13, combines a cultural festival starting at 3 p.m. with food and entertainment, with the dancing in the evening. The Salt Lake Buddhist Temple splits Obon over several days. “We do it in the three-day honorific festival like in Japan,” he said. “We have Friday cemetery visits, to cemeteries with large Japanese presence. Saturday is the food and the dance, and Sunday is the true religious service.”

The Saturday festival attracts 5,000-10,000 people, with most staying in the evening for the dancing. “We get a lot of spectators because we’re in the middle of the downtown tourist area,” he explained. And the temple makes sure all the local hotels know about this colorful free event.

North of Salt Lake City in Ogden, where Annette and Mike Koga are co-presidents of the Ogden Buddhist Church, the one-day Obon festival this year will be on July 20. Attendance in Ogden is between 500-700, with a temple membership about 120.

The Ogden Obon has given a modern spin on some of the traditional culture. “Some of the good oldies we’ve put to new music. We dance ‘Tanko Bushi’ to ‘Achy Breaky Heart,’” Annette Koga said.

Mike Koga added, “One dance we used to do it to the Beach Boys, the one that starts ‘Aruba, Jamaica’ (‘Kokomo’).”

At the Idaho-Oregon Buddhist Temple in Ontario, Ore., which is closer to the Utah temples than to the West Coast, Mike Iseri, one of the temple presidents, explained that the local Obon will be July 20, starting at 4 p.m.

“This is the 73rd annual Obon and we’ve never missed a year. The first one was in 1947, the year the church was established,” he said. “Let me explain a little bit of why it keeps going,” Iseri added. “There’s many of us that were born and raised here. We got educated and some of us spent a lifetime working someplace else and came back here, and some of us never left. We know what our parents and grandparents had to go through, so it would be a shame for this to end on our watch.

“Some of the people we grew up with and they had kids who don’t live here, they’re coming home to help. One guy I can think of who hasn’t lived here for 40 years, he makes it a point to come back every year to help for the weekend.”

In Denver, the Tri-State Denver Buddhist Temple’s Inouye agreed. “The thing that’s important is, I feel like it’s a fighting battle to keep JA culture alive because demographically our population has grown smaller. But we’ve been able to racially, geographically, diversify so we’ve grown that way.”

And by bringing family back home again.

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