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In-Person Obon Festivals Return Throughout BCA

It’s baaaaack!


The welcome sight of Obon festivals — with dancers in their colorful yukatas, hosts announcing the titles of Bon Odori classics like “Tanko Bushi,” as well as the sounds of kachi kachi (castanets), the snap of tenugui (Japanese hand towels) and the waving of paper fans — returned for in-person gatherings throughout the BCA for the first time since 2019 because of the pandemic.


From Ekoji and Seabrook to San Francisco, Venice and San Diego — from coast to coast and in between at the Midwest Buddhist Temple in Chicago, Salt Lake, and Tri-State/Denver temples — a number of BCA temples and churches held in-person Obons that drew crowds totaling in the thousands. There were also taiko performances and solemn Hatsubon services to commemorate the essence of Bon — honoring and celebrating ancestors and bringing the families together again.


"I realized it's been 2 (sic) years since the last in-person Obon, and even though there have been great virtual at home events since then, it just hits so differently,” one participant posted on social media about the San Jose Betsuin’s Obon event on July 9-10, which drew more than 1,600 dancers.


“Although there were some limitations and reductions to this year's events, there wasn't a single second that I wasn't smiling (on the inside or outside),” the post continued. “There's a lot I could say about the event — the cultural significance of Obon, the fun games, the food, the taiko performances, and the impact this event has on not only the direct San Jose community, but also the expanded community across the West Coast. However, this post would go forever, so I will just say this: Thank you @sjobon for bringing the expanded community together again at one of my favorite events. Until next year, whenever it happens, I will surely be there."


Another person posted: "San Jose Obon has been one of the best parts of my summer! We played games, watched amazing taiko groups such as San Jose Taiko and other collegiate groups, and danced! Obon is very important to the Japanese American community, and as a JA myself, this felt extremely special to me. I grew up going to Obon and my family’s Buddhist temple, and it was always a fun and reverent time. Not only did I get to experience the grandeur of this Obon, but I got to celebrate it with people I love. It is something I will never forget."


In Los Angeles County, the Venice Hongwanji Buddhist Temple held its Obon festival on July 16-17, offering food, fun and games, a silent auction, as well as Obon T-shirts and merchandise for sale.


The highlight of the weekend was Bon Odori on both nights, as instructors Judy Hopfield and Julia Ueda led nearly 1,000 dancers from Venice Hongwanji and friends from temples and community organizations across Southern California and beyond. The expressions of joy and the energy and spirit exhibited by all the dancers showed just how grateful and happy everyone was to be back together again.


The featured food offering was Mamechan’s Obon Dinner (Mamechan is the Venice Hongwanji mascot) guided by Chef Chris Ono, which included chicken teriyaki, wonton, andagi (Okinawa dango), tsukemono and rice. The many VHBT volunteers, who ranged in age from 5 to 90, worked tirelessly yet happily to make this a huge success.


The theme for this year’s VHBT Obon was #togetheragain, and festival organizers hope it will be the first of many more to come.


In Salt Lake City, the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple’s Obon festival on July 9 attracted nearly 400 participants dancing on the city’s Japan Town Street and drew an estimated 3,000 spectators, according to Lisa Imamura, Salt Lake temple’s 2022 Obon chairperson. The festivities featured the signature beer garden.


“All of the food sold out. The turnout was amazing, just amazing,” Imamura said.

In Chicago, the Midwest Buddhist Temple held an in-person Obon Odori on July 9 and had 300 people attend, with 200 dancing to “Tanko Bushi,” according to Resident Minister Rev. Ron Miyamura.


“Our Obon Odori does not have a bazaar with it, so we don't sell food or all that stuff, a tradition going back to the late Rev. Gyodo Kono, who was the founding minister,” Rev. Miyamura said. “Rev. Kono wanted the members to be able to dance and remember the significance of Obon.”


Instead, the Midwest Buddhist Temple holds its popular fundraiser in August called the Ginza Holiday with popular Japanese and Hawaiian foods, and entertainment including taiko performances. This year’s Ginza Lite — so-called because of the smaller, intimate event — was held Aug. 13-14 and featured the temple’s trademark and well-known chicken teriyaki.

In Fresno, about 200 Obon dancers moved to the sounds of Bon Odori songs in a circle dance between the new, spectacular Fresno Betsuin Hondo — which held its first community Hatsubon service in 2019, honoring some 80 members — and its Family Dharma Center.

Inside the air-conditioned Family Dharma Center, hundreds escaped the hot Fresno weather to enjoy the bento dinner before the Obon festivities — and lined up for Hawaiian shave ice prepared by the Fresno Betsuin’s Jr. YBA members.


The multicultural Obon dancers didn’t go unnoticed by spectators.


“See the diverse crowd of Obon dancers? This diversity and the legacy of Obon is spreading and inspirational to witness here at our Hondo,” said Kerry Yo Nakagawa, a Fresno Betsuin Sangha member who grew up attending the Fowler Buddhist Church. “Our Central Valley is a salad bowl of cultures and our new Hondo should be a great option for new members to learn about Jodo Shinshu and Shinran Shonin.”


Jerry Iseda of the Venice Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, Dennis Akizuki of the San Jose Betsuin Buddhist Temple, Rev. Ron Miyamura of the Midwest Buddhist Temple, and Lisa Imamura and Sandy Iwasaki of the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple contributed to this article.


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