In 2018, Soto Mission of San Francisco Sokoji began holding services for temple members’ ancestors during the Obon season. In 2019, in an effort to preserve Japanese culture and tradition, the Buddhist temple began holding their own toro nagashi (flowing lantern) festival, the Rev. Koshi Kurotaki said in an e-mail interview with the Nichi Bei Weekly.
This year, the temple’s toro nagashi will be streamed live July 17 at 7 p.m. PDT on YouTube (http://ow.ly/TAUm50Fajo4).
“In addition to floating lanterns, there are various other customs to welcome and send off ancestors and loved ones during the Bon Odori season, such as lighting bonfires …” or making “figures such as a horse out of cucumber to speed the arrival of their ancestors, and a cow out of an eggplant to send them back on a slow and steady journey. That’s one of the Obon custom(s),” Rev. Kurotaki wrote in an e-mail.
In many places in Japan, toro nagashi are held at the end of Obon festivals. Kurotaki pointed to a legend where “the ancestors return during the Bon Odori festival, and lanterns are lit to light the way for the ancestors to return to the other world.” He believes there are some famous lantern floats in Kyoto, while adding there are other lantern floats “held on various rivers in Japan.”
In Japan, it is customary to float lanterns in the river, but he said it is difficult to receive permission to do so in the United States. Over the past few years, his temple has built their own “rivers” to fulfill this tradition. The first year, Kurotaki said members built the river out of wooden crates and plastic sheets.
For the 2020 virtual toro nagashi event, they built a river in a member’s garden. Both rivers took several days to build, he said.
Members designed the lanterns for the first event, but Kurotaki designed them for last year’s virtual event. Kurotaki hopes the festival can expand in the future to become a temple fundraiser.
He believes that only a few places in the United States hold Japanese-style toro nagashi. However, he thinks there are places that hold “the Chinese-style lantern floating festival.” He added that the Japanese-style toro nagashi seem to be based on “Chinese customs.”
Kurotaki noted that toro nagashi is a celebratory event during Bon Odori season “to honor and give thanks to our ancestors.” He added, “to be thankful for our ancestors is to be thankful for our own life itself.”