Summer is fun time for Southern California Bon Odori junkies

LOS ANGELES — Summer is a joyful season for many thousands of Southern California Nikkei as they participate in numerous traditional Buddhist Obon observances — as well as non-Buddhist summer festivities — and most include some Japanese dancing.

Obon is a traditional event to honor and thank one’s ancestors for the gift of life. Most local Buddhist temples’ Obon festivals feature Bon Odori (festival dancing) and various types of entertainment, along with food, games, farmers markets, flower markets and cultural demonstrations.

According to Japanese Buddhist teachings, Obon comes from the story of Mokuren (Mogallana), a disciple of the Buddha who, while in a deep meditative state, saw his mother suffering in a hellish condition. The Buddha advised Mokuren to make an offering to his fellow monks at the end of a retreat. Then, seeing his mother released from her torment, Mokuren danced for joy. This dance of joy is seen as the original Bon Odori. The offering of clothing and food to the monks is popularly seen to be the act that set Mokuren’s mother free, hence the offering of food and entertainment at Obon.

The Obon festival’s highlight is the Bon Odori, the Senshin Buddhist Temple’s former head minister, the Rev. Masao Kodani, explained to this publication several years ago. “We dance just for the joy of dancing … Bon Odori is a spirited activity in which we dance without fretting over how one looks, no showing off one’s ability, no flaunting. Just dance … and you will feel true fulfillment and pure, ego-less joy.”

Three Bon Odori enthusiasts — Elaine Fukumoto, Janis Hirohama and Jeannie Toshima — commented via e-mail that Senshin Buddhist Temple has the most meaningful Obon festival, one that focuses on the Hatsubon service and the Bon Odori. There is no carnival or other major fundraising taking place.

OBON TIME IS FUN TIME — The Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple Bon Odori. photo by Glen Tao

Eight Core Bon Dances
Each year, the temples in the Southern District of the Buddhist Churches of America have a set list of eight Bon Odori core dances, reported Fukumoto, music chair for Southern District and Odori chair for Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple. “It’s a mix of dances from previous years with a couple of new ones added … Each temple then adds other dances of their choice.”

This year, the core dances are 1) “Bon Odori Uta,” 2) “Nagasaki Nonnoko Bushi,” 3) “Goshugi Ondo,” 4) “Okesa Utaeba,” 5) “Oyama Ondo,” 6) “Shigisan Ondo,” 7) “Pokemon Ondo,” and 8) “Narita Bayashi.”

“Obon, for me, is remembering those who have passed and appreciating our ancestors’ legacy,” stated Fukumoto, for whom dancing in the Bon Odori has been “a decades-old tradition … I could say I used to be an ‘Obon junkie.’ However, with age, and having to prepare more than half a year before the Obon season begins (organizing new dances, preparing for the instructing other temple people, etc.), I get somewhat burned out.”

Life-Affirming Obon
Obon is a time to “remember with gratitude my loved ones who have passed away, to appreciate all they have done to make my life possible, and to recognize the interconnectedness of all life,” stated Hirohama. “Obon is not morbid or depressing; in fact, it is very life-affirming.”

Participating in Bon Odori “allows us to forget the self,” the Orange County Buddhist Church member declared. “I’m not the best dancer in the world, but during Bon Odori I can be totally in the moment by setting aside my ego and dancing joyfully, without self-consciousness or fear of judgment. When you do that, you can truly feel your connection to other people and to life itself.”

Bon Odori has become “a uniquely Japanese American observance that gives our community — Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike — a chance to gather together and connect to our culture,” she related. “Japanese Americans observed Obon and danced Bon Odori even when they were incarcerated during World War II.”

Hirohama’s favorite dance is “Hokkai no Abarembo,” she revealed. “The dance movements re-enact the lives of fishermen … My Issei grandfather was a tuna fisherman in Hawai‘i, and all of his sons, including my father, worked as fishermen at some point in their lives … Every time I dance ‘Hokkai no Abarembo,’ I think about my grandfather, father, and uncles — their lives and what I owe to them.”

The self-described “Obon junkie” revealed that she attends one or two Southern California Obon festivals almost every weekend during the summer season, including festivals at OCBC, Sun Valley, San Fernando, West Covina, Oxnard, Santa Barbara, West L.A., Venice, Senshin, Vista, San Diego, Gardena, Pasadena, and L.A. Nishi Hongwanji. “I have also gone to the Las Vegas and Arizona Obon festivals. I usually close out the season at Nisei Week, a non-religious event that includes a street dance.”

‘Obon Jivers’ — The Jivers, at the 2018 Gardena Buddhist Church Obon, dress up as Elvises and can usually be spotted at several Bon Odori.
photo by Janis Hirohama

“One of the best things about going to so many Obon festivals is you are able to connect with a whole community of folks who love to dance,” she explained. “There’s a real sense of camaraderie and community that extends beyond festival season.”

Dancing with Grandkids
“Obon to me, spiritually, is all about showing my appreciation to all my ancestors … and to remember that I am the person I am because of the karma of those folks.” exclaimed Toshima, a Pasadena Buddhist Temple member. “It is truly a time that I think about my father, grandparents, aunts and uncles that I knew and who are now gone … and pay respect to them by offering incense and thinking about them.”

Growing up in Los Angeles, she reminisced, Obon was “a wonderful time in the summer, where we got to go with friends across town to dance and represent our temple. So now, I’m at a different temple … and I still love visiting and dancing at the other temples’ Obon festivals, to see friends that live in different parts of L.A. … It’s all about remembering people … and saying ‘thank you’ while you’re dancing.”

Toshima conceded that she is “close to being an ‘Obon junkie.’ I will go to as many as I can during the summer. And now it’s fun because I have my grandkids that enjoy being mushed together in a crowded line with so many others who are dancing, laughing and having a great time (along with their baachan).”

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