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Obon in the Northern Alps

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By VELINA HASU HOUSTON

The bus ride to Togamura was endless. Up and up into the Japanese Northern alps it traveled, its passengers all Japanese nationals except for me, a mixed-race Japanese daughter of Matsuyama, Kansas, Santa Monica, and Los Angeles.

Traveling alone, I busied myself with origami. I folded cranes, school-girl uniforms, and flowers, much to the astonishment of the Japanese nationals. They could not fathom why a brown-skinned person knew anything about origami.

(Years later, I would reflect upon this moment when my son’s best friend, a white male, began studying origami and became so expert at it that he was hired by a Hollywood film company to make origami figures of a film’s protagonists.)

The long bus ride proved to be worth it because the countryside in the Northern Alps was magnificent. The mountains were majestic and a river cut powerfully through the land. While there was daily work to be done, the reward at the end of it all was the most beautiful Obon ceremony that I have ever witnessed.

I can’t truly call it a festival because it was not. There were no food, game, or craft booths. We were high on a mountaintop, and the stars seemed so big and immediate that I felt as if I could reach up and pull one down from the night sky. Indeed, they seemed so close, so incredibly large that I wanted to touch them. Even though they glowed like milky fire, I was certain that they would feel like silk.

Candles illuminated the ceremony as we danced traditional dances. The music and dancing seemed magical as the stars shone like lanterns.

We said prayers for our ancestors and then released lanterns into the nearby river. I watched them float away and thought about my maternal grandparents, my father, and my paternal grandparents. I genuinely felt as if they had been with me and that they had given me fortitude to face the complexities of life.

To this day, those looming stars remain in my mind’s eye. When I look at the distant stars in the Los Angeles sky, I think about the Togamura stars with longing.

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Professor, director of dramatic writing and associate dean of faculty at USC, internationally acclaimed playwright Velina Hasu Houston specializes in pan-Asian American feminist dramatic literature. Her plays, including the critically acclaimed “Tea,” have been produced at leading theaters in the U.S. and Japan. Also a poet and essayist, she is the editor of two anthologies of plays by Asian Americans. Her awards include two Rockefeller Foundation Playwriting Fellowships and three James H. Zumberge Research and Innovation Fund grants.

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