Obon Time in a Sustainable Little Tokyo


Nishi Hongwanji and Zenshuji Soto Mission host Obon festivals this weekend.

 Kaye Soohoo and Fumie Yoshioka (left) sort items that are donated for the temple's White Elephant sale. (GWEN MURANAKA/Rafu Shimpo)

From left: Sunil Vernekar, Zenshuji Obon chair, Ben Takagi, Kunio Tsuneyoshi and Amy Honjiyo in the garden at Zenshuji Soto Mission. All organic materials from the kitchen are composted and used to nourish the soil. Extra bins will be utilized to gather organic waste from the Obon Carnival to be held this weekend. (GWEN MURANAKA/Rafu Shimpo)


Part of the continuing series “Towards a Sustainable Little Tokyo.”

“Sustainable” is certainly a buzzword in Little Tokyo these days and that includes at Zenshuji Mission of Los Angeles and Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple. While the temples and its members are busy preparing for their Obon festivals this weekend, they also are mindful of the environmental impacts.

Sustainable Little Tokyo, first organized in 2013, is an initiative that seeks to build a cultural ecodistrict that both respects Little Tokyo’s history and embraces ecologically friendly practices.

But to speak with the members of the local temples, sustainability or the concept of mottainai is deeply ingrained in Buddhism.

“I was surprised that the idea of sustainable comes up recently. We keep this lifestyle in Zen Buddhism for many long years,” said Rev. Shumyo Kojima, head minister of Zenshuji Soto Zen Mission.

He explained that Zen monks are very poor and they are mindful of every morsel of food and the effort that has gone into harvesting and preparing it.

“Buddhist thinking, especially Zen, is that we simplify our way of thinking. Once we simplify what we need, we simplify our desires,” said Kojima.

Similarly, Rimban Bill Briones at Hompa Hongwanji explained that the Buddhist Churches of America Ministers’ Association approved an eco-sangha resolution in June 2014. The resolution, first initiated by Rimban Don Castro of Seattle Betsuin, encourages BCA temples to adopt environmentally proactive practices in the spirit of mottainai.

“Fundamentally a basic Buddhist ideal is ecology,” said Briones, who has written on the topic.

Nishi has replaced their lights and toilets to more efficient models, and has encouraged members to use reusable mugs instead of paper or Styrofoam cups.

As the temple looks ahead to its 50th anniversary, a large-scale project being considered is to replace the outdated air conditioning system with a system that will cut down on energy costs.

For this weekend’s Obon, Nishi will host a water filling station provided by the Department of Water and Power for attendees who bring their own bottles.

At Zenshuji, Amy Honjiyo explained that the temple has looked at different ways to make this year’s Obon festival more sustainable, even down to its snow cones.

Instead of using Styrofoam, the cold treats will be served in paper boats. Honjiyo said she timed the rate ice melts to make sure the paper goods would work.

Sunil Vernekar, Obon chair, encouraged the efforts to make the Obon more eco-friendly, citing his own upbringing in India.

“This sensibility is a good example to show that there is a way to live efficiently and happily, and I like that spirit,” Vernekar said. “You’re not losing, you’re gaining, making the most of what you have and respecting the Earth that we’re on.”

Zenshuji is also contracting with a different trash hauler for the Obon weekend that will sort and recycle the waste. The temple also composts its organic waste and will increase its efforts during the festival.

“During the festival, we’ll add an additional organic waste bin for both kitchens. All organic waste from meals prepared here are thrown in an organic waste bin and put back into the ground,” Honjiyo said.

Members of both temples said there are challenges balancing the needs of putting on an Obon festival, which is a fundraiser, with trying to become more sustainable. For example, the sale of PET water bottles is an issue where the two goals are in conflict.

But there is a green spot in both temples: flourishing gardens filled with fresh vegetables.

Compost from the organic waste collected in the kitchen is used to fertilize Zenshuji’s garden, tended by Ben Takagi and Kunio Tsuneyoshi. Fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and other vegetables are used to feed members.

As the children napped, Susan Mukai, principal at Nishi Child Development Center, gave a tour of the temple’s organic garden that is tended by the students. Tomatoes, lettuce and carrots peeked out of the ground in the small plot set next to the playground. The junior gardeners will be joining in Obon festivities as well, performing on stage in the afternoon.

“The children harvest and they help pull the weeds. We eat whatever we produce,” Mukai said. “What we like is the children learn how food grows and when they are involved in growing it, they’re much more interested in eating it. So they’ll try the salad because they know they helped to grow and pick it.”

• Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, 815 E. First St., Little Tokyo, will hold its annual Obon Festival on Saturday, July 11, from 3 to 10 p.m. and Sunday, July 12, from 2:30 to 9 p.m. Obon dancing begins at 7 p.m. on Saturday and 6:30 p.m. on Sunday. For information, call (213) 680-9130 or visit www.nishihongwanji-la.org.

• Zenshuji Soto Mission of Los Angeles, 123 S. Hewitt St., Little Tokyo, holds their the 57th annual Obon Carnival on July 11 and 12, from 11a.m. to 8 p.m. Obon service will be held at 1:30 p.m. on both days. Obon dancing starts at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday and 6:45 p.m. on Sunday. For more information, call (213) 617-0100 or visit www.zenshuji.org.

Obon dancers at Nishi Hongwanji. The temple will host a DWP water filling station at this weekend's Obon Festival. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

Obon dancers at Nishi Hongwanji. The temple will host a DWP water filling station at this weekend’s Obon Festival. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

Nishi Hongwanji Obon Schedule

Saturday, July 11

2 p.m.: Hatsubon service

2 to 4 p.m.: Tea ceremony demonstrations (temple front)

3 to 10 p.m.: Festival

3:30 to 4 p.m.: Judo (Kaikan)

4 to 5 p.m.: Buddhism Q&A (Hondo)

5 to 10 p.m.: Bingo

7 to 9 p.m.: Bon Odori

Outdoor Stage

3 p.m.: Welcome by Temple President Kenji Hatakeyama; emcee: Derek Escano

3:05 to 3:45 p.m: Nishi Development Center Kids

4 to 4:30 p.m.: Matsutoyo Kai

4:45 to 5:15 p.m.: Ha-Aloha Polynesian Dancers

5:30 to 6:30 p.m.: L.A. Matsuri Taiko

9 p.m.: Drawing for prizes

9 to 10 p.m.: Kokoro

Sunday, July 12

2 p.m.: Hatsubon service

2 to 4 p.m.: Tea ceremony demonstrations (temple front)

3 to 9 p.m.: Festival

4 to 5 p.m.: Buddhism Q&A (Hondo)

4 to 9 p.m.: Bingo

6:30 to 8:30 p.m.: Bon Odori

Outdoor Stage

2:30 p.m.: Welcome by Temple President Kenji Hatakeyama; emcee: Derek Escano

2:35 to 3:10 p.m.: Nishi Development Center Kids

3:20 to 3:50 p.m.: Kotobuki no Kai (minyo)

4 to 4:35 p.m.: The Bluesettes Quintet

4:45 to 5:15 p.m.: L.A. Matsuri Taiko

5:20 to 6 p.m.: Amy Singer and Friends

8:30 p.m.: Raffle drawing

Zenshuji Obon Schedule

Saturday, July 11

12:30 to 4 p.m.: Tea ceremony

1:30 p.m.: Obon service

3 p.m.: Karaoke (registration starts at 2 p.m.)

4 p.m.: Tokushima Awa Odori (folk dance)

5 p.m.: Shorinji Kempo (martial arts)

5:45 p.m.: Kinnara Taiko with Johnny Mori

6:30 p.m.: Bon Odori

Sunday, July 12

12:30 to 4 p.m.: Tea ceremony

1:30 p.m.: Obon service

3 p.m.: Mme. Yuki Yasuda (koto)

3:15 p.m.: East L.A. Taiko

4 p.m.: Sea Breeze (Polynesian dance)

4:45 p.m.: Zendeko (taiko)

5 p.m.: Raffle drawing

6:30 p.m.: Bon Odori with music by Matsutoyo Kai



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