By Brett Fujioka
The Higashi Honganji Los Angeles Buddhist Temple gathered for its annual Obon Festival on Saturday and Sunday, July 24-25. Although advertised as its bicentennial celebration, the temple itself actually organized its first event back in 1959 thus making it the 51st.
To some, the Obon Festival may just be another tourist attraction and an opportunity to eat and
dance, but it’s more personal for the temple. “It’s in memory of our ancestors who gave us life,” said Rinban Noriaki Ito.
In Japan, it’s a tradition to return to a family gravesite and pay respects. For Japanese American Buddhists, this is a problem for those unable to divide the time or money to do so.
“Many Issei, Nissei wish they could go back…this [celebration instead]fulfils that purpose,” said
Unlike most observances of the dead that often take a somber note, the Obon is more akin to Louisiana holidays such as Mardi Gras. In this respect, it’s comparable to the upbeat “jazz funerals” of New Orleans, which seek to celebrate the lives of the deceased rather than mourn their passing.
Decoratively, the temple remained faithful to its Japanese roots. Volunteers furnished the exterior with manto-e (lanterns) featuring the names of families written on their sides. An obon yagura (miniature tower) was erected at the festival’s center and housed a taiko drummer who jump-started the evening’s bon odori. Many of the several hundreds who attended the festival arrived clad in yukata summer kimonos.
Those in attendance were a patchwork of people from all over Los Angeles, ranging from the neo-yuppie hipster to the Nikkei-jin hoping to get closer to his roots. African American, Asian, Hispanic, White, and Hapa celebrators of every age clapped their kachi-kachi to the rhythm of the bon odori dance.
The temple came prepared and set up stands for a variety of flavors native to Japan. A beer garden was readily available to those unable to work up the courage to dance in the open.
Despite obon’s Buddhist label, it was everything but exclusive. Many church members were proud of the diversity their temple attracted.
“It keeps on getting bigger and bigger each year,” said Henry Yasuda, one of the volunteers responsible for preparing the chicken teriyaki. “As you can see, it’s become something much more.”