By CATHY UCHIDA
For many Americans, Memorial Day signifies the beginning of summer, ushered in by the smells of BBQ, corn on the cob, hot dogs, watermelons and baseball. For Japanese and Japanese Americans, Obon means that summer is in full swing.
Obon is synonymous with hot, humid days but also delicious smells that waft through temple grounds, scents that vary from location to region.
Several years ago, one evening in Manoa Valley, Hawaii, my friend and I decided to walk around the neighborhood to escape the oppressive heat, humidity, the noisy young crowd at the hostel and take a break from the week-long AP Biology workshop sessions. It was peaceful with a gentle breeze and the chirping sounds of insects.
As we strolled down the country road, the quiet was broken by the noise of thumping drums and bells. Then the full view of the parking lot came into focus. We had stumbled onto an Obon! We saw the circle of dancers, bodies and hands swaying and gesturing to the Elvira song. Some of the young girls wore yukata and many others had their happi coats. Still others wore their Hawaiian shirts and shorts, such a blending of fashions and colors.
Then another sense hit me, the smells of food, including familiar ones such as teriyaki. However, this time, there was something different, yet natsukashii (nostalgic) about this one particular aroma. It was the scent of grilled ika or squid. I beelined to the booth! I was in luck, no waiting!
I told the lady, “One, please.” She handed me the skewer. With mouth wide open, my teeth sunk into the rubbery, solid flesh of the squid. As I chewed, the smoky sweet soy flavors filled my mouth. My hakujin friend declined my offer for a taste. It was revolting and disgusting to him, the smell, the texture, but for me, it was comfort!
Nowadays, my sister and I are Obon fiends. July and August weekends are spent going from one temple to another. Fortunately, I’ve been lucky to experience Obon in D.C., Seattle and parts of Northern Cal. I can still taste the “oishii” (good) grilled corn on the cob from San Jose, the sushi at Centenary Church. That year was the first “Obon” festivities celebrated at the Christian church, which is notable, since Obon comes out of the Buddhist tradition.
Salinas and their fresh, sweet strawberry shortcakes, San Fernando Valley and their udon are seared in my collective memories. I have fond recollections of being in Hiroshima, where my dad’s cousin was kind to dress me in a hand-made yukata from Saitama-ken with beautiful, subtle colors of flowers on a dark blue background. She gave me an obi to contrast the yukata.
It was a fun time to be with relatives, listening to familiar and new songs accompanied by the taiko and, of course, watching the dancers. My sister and I never dance, but as spectators, we’ve seen many familiar faces over the years at the various local Obons. I guess they too are Obon fiends.
We’ve eaten our way throughout L.A. and Orange County Obons. Sure, we can buy inari and futomaki sushi any day at Niijiya or Tokyo Central, but when we buy it at the Obons, somehow knowing that they were made by the hands of Niseis and Sanseis from recipes handed down by generations of the Fujinkai women, makes them taste special.
There is something to be said about being served hot tea by volunteer scouts or temple members, or sitting next to the rinban, slurping udon and playing bingo.
Several years ago my sister and I went to Vancouver to visit and tour the internment camps with my aunt, who along with my mother and the rest of their family were forcibly removed from their homes to the interior parts of Canada during WWII. Lucky for us, our timing couldn’t be better as the Vancouver temple had their Obon before the tour!
Many of the songs and dances were different from the states, but the foods were similar yet different. The flavors of the sushi, Spam musubi, manju had their unique, subtle “Canadian” taste.
After the camp tour, we said farewell to my aunt and Canada and headed down to Seattle to catch their Obon! Yes, we were in full Obon mode but all too soon, it was August, signaling the end of Obon, shortly followed by the official end of summer with Labor Day.
Today we can replay the sights, sounds of music, laughter and chatter on Facebook, but you can never capture the smells, textures and flavors of good old homemade foods of Obon!
Cathy Uchida is a retired high school science teacher. She has made several short videos with Digital Histories and has taken Sansei Stories workshops with Timothy Toyama. She lives in Eagle Rock with 2 dogs and a cat. Lali, a border collie, and Cathy volunteer at Sakura Intermediate Care Facility in Boyle Heights. In her spare time she enjoys hiking, traveling and gardening.