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Obon Festival Tradition Begins — in Humboldt

It had the familiar sights and sounds of an Obon: the booming of taiko, the smell of cooking food and the joyful dancing to Bon classics like “Tanko Bushi” and “Obon no Uta.”


But the origin of the inaugural Humboldt Obon wasn’t from a Buddhist temple. Instead, the Aug. 14 festival that attracted a crowd of up to 800 people in downtown Arcata blossomed from a new Asian American Pacific Islander community, with an assist from San Jose Taiko.


Before the dancing began for the area’s inaugural Obon, Rinban Rev. Gerald Sakamoto of the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin spoke to the those in attendance about Obon, then chanted “Sambujo” and “Vandana Ti-Sarana.”


Response to the festival was overwhelmingly positive, and organizers are planning for next year’s Obon.


“I was really impressed because of the community that came out and supported and participated in this Obon,” said Rev. Sakamoto, who along with his wife, Kathy, drove 320 miles to attend the festival.


“We were amazed at the large turnout and also by the large number of Japanese and Japanese Americans and Asian Americans who joined us in dance,” said Amy Uyeki, one of the organizers. “Many of them knew all the dances that were performed.”


Uyeki got into the spirit of the event by donning a Totoro costume, based on the title character of “My Neighbor Totoro,” the classic 1988 Japanese animated fantasy film written and directed by the iconic Hayao Miyasaki.


“As with other Obon festivals, the dancers were multi-generational, and the sheer good will and joy of communing together was the overarching feeling of the day,” Uyeki said. “We are all still riding that emotional high, which will carry us through to the next festival!”


Craig Kurumada, a local folk dancer who attended Obon festivals in Salt Lake City, was the odori instructor.


Dozens of people — some in yukatas and kimonos — danced to “Obon no Uta,” “Matsumoto Bon Bon,” “Soran Bushi,” “Ichi Tasu Ichi no Ondo,” “Tokyo Ondo,” “Unagappa Ondo,” “Tanko Bushi,” and “Shiawase Samba.”


The festival featured: shakuhachi performances by Rick Kruse and the newly formed Humboldt Taiko; booths of Asian American artists and vendors; childrens’ activities such as a traditional Japanese fishing game and paper lantern making; a silent auction; and food, including curry rice and a variety of musubi.


Marylyn Paik-Nicely, another of the organizers, spoke to the North Coast Journal about attending Obon festivals while growing up in Hilo, Hawaii. She recalled learning the dances, going to Obons every weekend during the summer, and accompanying her grandmother to the cemetery to pay respects to relatives and friends.

“Even far away in Humboldt, I always know when it is Obon ... I always have an altar up anyway with pictures of my parents and grandparents just to feel in touch,” she told the Journal.

The roots of Humboldt Obon stemmed from the 2019 and 2020 performances in Humboldt County of “Swingposium,” a San Jose Taiko musical about jazz and swing bands in World War II Japanese American incarceration camps, according to Uyeki.


Those successful performances inspired local Asian Americans to form a cultural group, Humboldt Asians & Pacific Islanders in Solidarity (HAPI). A number of the members grew up in areas with larger Asian American communities, and they shared their memories of participating in Obon festivals.


“Our intent after ‘Swingposium’ was to organize our first Obon,” Uyeki said. “But COVID got in the way, and it was two years later that we actually decided it was time to try our luck organizing our first Obon.”


HAPI wanted a Buddhist minister to participate in the festival, so Uyeki reached out for help to the artistic director of San Jose Taiko, Franco Imperial. SJT is the centerpiece of the entertainment at the San Jose Betsuin’s Obon festival and coordinates appearances by collegiate taiko groups.


“Amy reached out to me asking about someone from the Buddhist community who might preside over the ceremonies,” said Imperial, who also attended the Humboldt festival. “I connected her to Rinban (Rev. Sakamoto) and Team HAPI took it from there.”


Rinban Rev. Sakamoto was surprised by the invitation, but was pleased to accept.


“I participated to learn from and share the Dharma,” he said. “The planners of the Obon were committed to having Buddhism represented at the Obon. They recognized the important relationship between Buddhism and Obon. I thought I could help to share that appreciation.”


Wearing koku'e robes and gojo gesa, Rinban Rev. Sakamoto spoke for about 10 minutes, telling the attendees that Buddhism is about resolving the difficulties of life by seeing things as they are. His brief talk preceded his chanting to start the dancing.


“Rinban Sakamoto was instrumental in our planning and instead of a traditional ceremony at a Buddhist church, he spoke to the entire group, explained the origins of Obon as not only a Buddhist ceremony, but the humanistic basis for the festival, which is shared by many cultures and religions,” Uyeki said.


The organizers wanted to make sure that their Obon remembered not only the loved ones of participants who have passed on, but also the ancestors of the indigenous Wiyot, the original inhabitants, as well as immigrants who lived in the area.


That focus, while not a normal part of Obon observances at BCA temples, is very much in keeping with the spirit of Obon, according to Rinban Rev. Sakamoto.


“With Humboldt, the boundaries (of the festival) were not yet so defined, except that they wanted an Obon festival and in acknowledging the origins of Obon, a Buddhist priest who might share the Dharma,” he said. “Their thinking of Obon included present relationships and relationships with the land and the original people who lived in Humboldt — kind of an original sense of Dharma that includes all.”


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