Santa Barbara Obon Making a Comeback

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A Santa Barbara Obon photo from the 1950s.

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

On any given weekend during the summer, residents of the greater L.A. area can participate in Bon Odori at two or three Buddhist temples within driving distance. But for members of Santa Barbara Buddhist Church, there hasn’t been a Bon Odori in almost a quarter of a century.

The 24-year hiatus will end on Saturday, July 20, with festivities beginning at 1 p.m. and dancing at 4 and 6 p.m. The final dance practice will be held on Friday, July 19, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. The church is located at 1015 E. Montecito St.

Originally located at 131 E. Canon Perdido St., the church was founded in 1922 and moved to its current site in 1966. The Obon Festival was once a lively affair attended by hundreds; a 1981 photo shows taiko drumming in Santa Barbara’s De la Guerra Plaza, across from City Hall.

Rev. Henry Adams, the church’s minister, said the festival was discontinued due to “declining membership” and because “the people leading the Obon organization were getting older and not able to keep up with all the different activities.”

But in recent years, “people have been asking us, ‘Are you going to do Obon again?’ ‘When is Obon?’ It’s still in the mind of people around Santa Barbara,” he said.

Adams and the church’s board have been thinking of bringing back Obon dancing since the beginning of last year. “Initially, the idea was to do something very simple,” Adams recalled, but “when word got out that we were planning to bring back the Obon celebration, a lot of people approached us from outside the community, friends of the temple. Momentum started to build in terms of … serving Japanese food, performances by different people from the Oxnard/Ventura area.”

During the hiatus, church members — who currently number about 40 — continued to observe Obon with religious services, “followed by a gathering of people — some food, chatting, enjoying each other’s company,” Adams said. For Bon Odori, “a lot of people would go down to Oxnard or go up to San Luis Obispo or Guadalupe.”

The dance practices began in June. “We’ve been getting a good turnout, a combination of people who grew up doing Obon dancing in Santa Barbara, people from other temples who settled in Santa Barbara, and people brand new to Obon dancing,” Adams reported, adding that the newcomers “have really gotten into it.”

The songs are from the standard Buddhist Churches of America Southern District repertoire, including “Obon no Uta,” “Tanko Bushi” and “Tohoku Ondo,” the latter dedicated to the victims of the 2011 earthquake/tsunami in northeastern Japan.

The key dance instructors are sisters Roberta Cook, Melanie Fujii and Doreen Sasaki. “The three sisters were very active growing up doing Obon Odori,” Adams noted. “We have old video footage of them … They’ve continued to come out to Oxnard Obon, continued to do the dancing, so they’ve really been leaders of the dance practices.”

Entertainment will be provided by, among others, Togen Daiko from Oxnard and Fuji Japanese Music and Fuji Japanese Dance, whose teacher, Mme. Kimisen Katada, is based in Ventura.

“When she heard we were doing Obon, she approached us,” Adams said of Katada. “People have really come out and offered … We’re grateful for their contribution.”

The festival is “really taking shape” and going “beyond what I had imagined,” said Adams, who also heard that other temples, including Venice/West L.A. and Oxnard, are planning to charter buses. “We’re probably going to have hundreds on Saturday … I think it’ll be fun – a lot of good energy.”

For those unfamiliar with the neighborhood, he warned, “Parking is going to be an issue.”

The schedule is as follows:

11 a.m.: July Shotsuki memorial and Hatsubon service

12 p.m.: Tea offering

1 to 6:30 p.m.: Japanese cuisine food truck; beverage sales, baked goods and snack foods; games; origami demonstrations; craft sales

1 p.m.: Ikebana demonstration

1:30 p.m.: Fuji Japanese Dance

2:05 p.m.: Okinawan sanshin music

2:25 p.m.: Bob the Shakuhachi Monk

2:45 p.m.: Kendo demonstration

3:30 p.m.: Fuji Japanese Music

4 p.m.: Bon Odori

5 p.m.: Togen Daiko

6 p.m. Bon Odori

For more information, call (805) 483-5948, email [email protected] or visit www.buddhistchurchofsantabarbara.org/obon.

Members of Buddhist Church of Santa Barbara’s current congregation. Rev. Henry Adams is on the left.

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