2017-07-21 / Faith

Obon Festival honors ancestors

Event features traditional dance, food
By Angela Swartz
Special to the Acorn


CULTURE AND CUSTOM—Above, David Raza of Oxnard performs with his group, Togen Daiko, during the Obon Festival July 8 at the Oxnard Buddhist Temple. At right, 3-year-old Presley Kayo Yamamoto of Camarillo wears her yukata to the event. 
Photos by BOBBY CURTIS/Acorn Newspapers CULTURE AND CUSTOM—Above, David Raza of Oxnard performs with his group, Togen Daiko, during the Obon Festival July 8 at the Oxnard Buddhist Temple. At right, 3-year-old Presley Kayo Yamamoto of Camarillo wears her yukata to the event. Photos by BOBBY CURTIS/Acorn Newspapers Dressed in a colorful yukata, Helen Takanabe, a member of the Oxnard Buddhist Temple, makes her way to the dance circle.

As traditional Japanese music begins to play in the background, Takanabe and others slowly circle a large wooden tower, or yagura, extending their arms and clapping. Atop the tower sits a musician, keeping the beat on a taiko, a traditional Japanese drum.

Before long, audience members join in, struggling to follow the intricate moves but smiling from ear to ear. First-time temple visitor Priscilla Liang, 48, wearing ripped jeans and a T-shirt, is among them.

“I knew nothing about Buddhism or the dance coming in, but I just went for it. Even though I wasn’t a Buddhist, I felt a great sense of community with them,” said Liang, a Thousand Oaks resident.

The Oxnard Buddhist Temple’s annual Obon Festival, held July 8, has since 1929 helped introduce non-Buddhists to the traditions, beliefs and practices of the Eastern religion. It typically ends with the Bon Odori dance, which honors the lives of those who have passed on; Obon itself is a time to pay homage to one’s ancestors.

“It’s not about showing off your moves,” said Takanabe, a Westlake Village resident. “It’s about joining the circle and remembering your ancestors together with gratitude.”

Although Obon is a religious celebration, the temple opens up the festival to the entire community. While there is no cost to attend the day’s exhibitions and activities, vendors sell goods, with proceeds going to the 175-member temple on H Street in Oxnard.


TRADITIONAL DRUM—Chizumi Pond of Newbury Park performs with Togen Daiko. The Obon Festival helps introduce non-Buddhists to the traditions, beliefs and practices of the Eastern religion. TRADITIONAL DRUM—Chizumi Pond of Newbury Park performs with Togen Daiko. The Obon Festival helps introduce non-Buddhists to the traditions, beliefs and practices of the Eastern religion. Aletha Watanabe, a Thousand Oaks resident, serves on the board of the temple. She said Obon is a special opportunity for the congregation to teach outsiders about their particular sect of Buddhism, Jodo Shinshu, which started in the 12th century in Japan.

Like Watanabe, most members of the temple are of Japanese descent, but those of any race and background are encouraged to join.

“The more we learn about each other, the more understanding we will have and, consequently, more compassion,” she said.

Making the Obon Festival a reality requires a complete team effort, said Takanabe, who serves as superintendent of the temple’s Dharma school, which teaches children ages 4 to 18 about the branch of Buddhism and Japanese culture.

In preparation, students spend months learning traditional dances and ceremonies. They also assist the adults in running the variety of game and vending booths offered at the festival.

One of Obon’s biggest draws is the cuisine.

Made by a group of temple members who are known as “the Japanese grandmas,” dishes this year included udon noodles, teriyaki chicken and gyoza dumplings.

“Food always brings people together and puts a smile on faces,” Takanabe said.

When they weren’t eating or dancing, visitors were treated to other demonstrations of Japanese culture, including bonsai (tiny tree cutting), taiko (drums) and traditional martial arts (judo and karate).

Also taking place was a cosplay competition, where children and adults dressed up as Japanese anime characters, all striving to wear the most creative costume.

Attendees also had the opportunity to witness a worship service inside the temple.

One of two Buddhist temples in Ventura County—the other is in Ventura—the Oxnard temple views the Obon Festival as one of its most important events of the year. Hundreds from all over Southern California attended.

“Coming together is an important part of the festival, and I’m glad all these people came to celebrate with us,” Watanabe said.

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