July 20, 2024

Get out your kachi kachi and fans. It’s Obon season.

Every summer, Japanese Americans in Southern California gather at temples and community centers to celebrate Obon, a joyous festival dedicated to remembering and honoring ancestors. Festivals run from June to August and include carnival games, home-cooked food, and traditional Japanese dancing.

Obon is one of the reasons that summer is my favorite time of the year. Growing up Japanese American in Southern California, the holiday conjures up nostalgic childhood memories of eating popsicles during dance practice and eating udon and teriyaki chicken.

What follows is a roundup of all of the Obon festivals in SoCal and the key information you need to participate, including how to join in the dancing festivities.

What is Obon?

A line of Asian American and multiracial people, some in yukata and happi coats, dancing in a large open lot as the sky behinds them turns shades of pink and orange.

Dancing typically begins as the sun sets. San Fernando Valley Hongwanji Buddhist Temple Obon Festival, 2019.

Obon is an annual Japanese Buddhist holiday to celebrate and honor those who have passed away. It’s like the Japanese Dia de Muertos, I jokingly tell my friends.

In SoCal, summer kicks off a series of festivals that take place on the weekends between June and August, mainly at Buddhist churches and Japanese community centers across the region. People of all ages come together to eat food, enjoy the company of friends and family, and celebrate. Because Japanese Buddhist temples (or churches, as they’re often called in the U.S.) have historically been gathering places for Japanese American communities within the U.S., these festivals are also a place to celebrate and enjoy Japanese culture.

A typical Obon festival has carnival games, like tic-tac-toe, knocking over bottles with a baseball, or fishing for prizes. Teriyaki chicken, shave ice or dango are for sale. Kids run around in yukata or jinbei, and aunties in happi coats stake out their spots on the sidewalk with folding chairs to watch the festivities.

Back of a young medium-skin-toned girl in a light blue yukata with large red and pink flower patterns. Her brown curly hair is tied up, with dangling red and yellow flower accessories. Tucked into the back of her belt is a flat, round paper fan, with a hand drawing of a cat in a yukata on it.

Many people dress in yukata or happi coats for the Obon festivities. In 2023, a Gardena festival attendee gave away these hand-illustrated fans to attendees.

But the real centerpiece of the evening is Bon Odori, or Japanese dancing. As the sun sets, a large circle forms around a raised platform, where folk music plays to a steady taiko drum beat. Each song has a short series of choreographed moves that repeat, so anyone can join in and follow along, regardless of how well you know the dances. You may not know the moves at the beginning of each song, but by the end, you’ve got the hang of it.

The idea is not to sit on the sidelines and watch. If you’re able, you jump in and participate.

Some folks, particularly those who are very involved in their temple or know the dances well, go on the Obon circuit, attending multiple Obon festivals throughout the summer.

What’s the history of Obon?

Obon dance at Granada (Amache) concentration camp

Bon odori at Granada (Amache) concentration camp, Colorado, August 14, 1943. The original WRA caption estimates 1,000 dancers took part in the event held on a baseball diamond.

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Photographer Joe McClelland

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Densho Encyclopedia / Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

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While the first mention of Bon Odori was in Yamato Shinbun newspaper in Hawaii in 1905, credit often goes to Reverend Yoshio Iwanaga for introducing Bon Odori on the mainland in 1930. As a minister with a background in music and dance, he taught in multiple communities on the North American West Coast, recontextualizing Bon Odori as a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist practice, drawing music and dance from across Japan.

The Buddhist Church of San Francisco held the first Obon festival with Bon Odori in 1931. In Los Angeles, the first Bon Odori occurred in 1933 or 1934, on Central Avenue between First and Jackson Streets in Little Tokyo, at Nishi Hongwanji (Los Angeles Hompa Hongwanji Betsuin), where Iwanaga became the minister.

When the U.S. incarcerated Japanese Americans during World War II, Buddhist communities organized Obon celebrations with Bon Odori dancing in the camps.

Emily Anderson, historian and curator at the Japanese American National Museum, says this is remarkable, considering the strong anti-Japanese sentiment at the time. There was a strong push for Japanese Americans to become more “Americanized.” Yet, Obon was a holiday that was too important to give up.

“They were like, we’ve lost everything else. You’re not going to take this from us,” says Anderson. “There’s something really powerful to me that despite all the circumstances, they still celebrated.”

How is Obon in Japan different than Obon in the U.S.?

It turns out that the way we celebrate Obon in the United States is distinctly Japanese American.

In Japan, the Obon holiday focuses on returning to your family’s hometown, visiting your ancestors’ graves, and reuniting with family and friends.

It typically falls around August 15, and Anderson says there are traffic jams and packed Shinkansen trains throughout the country as people go from the big cities back to their hometowns. Kyoto famously sends loved ones back home to the spirit world on August 16 by lighting large bonfires on the hillsides in the shape of kanji characters. Anderson says that during this time Kyoto is packed with tourists, venues often booked months in advance.

While in the U.S., many people associate Obon with the festivals, with temples often also hosting memorial services, in Japan the holiday is more intimate and low key. There are some local festivities and celebrations, but because many other bigger festivals take place in Japan during the summertime, Obon is really about spending quality time with family. Jeff Asai, in a column for Nichi Bei, likens local festivals to class reunions, with the added sentiment of paying respects to the people who came before you.

In the U.S., Obon festivals are staggered throughout the summer to give people the opportunity to attend multiple festivals.

“There’s that generosity and that desire to share that’s emblematic of the Japanese American community,” Anderson says. “It’s an opportunity for us to not only honor and celebrate our own identity, but share that with other people.”

Is it cool if I join the dancing? How can I learn Bon Odori?

An Asian American man in a blue yukata dances with his hands in the air and one knee up. Around him are others dancing in yukata and happi coats.

Letting go of your ego to dance joyfully is part of the idea behind Obon dancing, according to Senshin Buddhist Temple.

(

Keith Uyemura

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Senshin Buddhist Temple

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Yes! It’s totally OK to join in without knowing what you’re doing. In a way, that’s kind of the point.

According to Senshin Buddhist temple’s website, part of the intention behind dancing is to be OK with looking ridiculous and put our self-consciousness aside: “It is at this moment, that we suddenly remember our indebtedness to others and truly dance joyfully – happiness is the ego getting its way; joy is being free of ego.”

The best way to learn Bon Odori is by jumping in. If you attend a festival, feel free to join the circle and just start following anyone who looks like they know what they’re doing.

If you do want to try out the moves in advance, many temples have drop-in practice sessions to learn the dances. It’s also a great way to connect with others. Find the dates for each location below.

You can also follow along with video tutorials for each of the dances online. Each year, the Buddhist Churches of America Southern District selects a short list of songs that become the standard dances at all of the festivals, though each temple might add some of its own. This year’s songs include:

I want to go! When are Obon festivals happening in 2024?

Two young girls look into a game booth. In it, volunteer walks in front of a large wooden table with a basketball and colored cups.

Temple groups often run booths with games to play for young and old. Nishi Hongwanji Obon Festival, 2019.

Southern California Obon festivals start in June and go through August in 2024. Many other Japanese American community events during the summer also incorporate Bon Odori, including Nisei Week and Japanese American National Museum’s Natsumatsuri. Japanese City lists Japanese community events and Rafu Shimpo often covers Obon and other news relevant to Japanese American communities.

Anything missing? Feel free to reach out to me at [email protected].

June 22, 2024 and June 23, 2024 at 4 p.m. (Sun Valley)

Valley Japanese Community Center
8850 Lankershim Blvd
Sun Valley, CA 91352
MORE INFO

Bon Odori practice
June 18, 6:30–8 p.m.

June 29, 2024 at 3 p.m. (West Covina)

West Covina Buddhist Temple
1203 West Puente Avenue
West Covina, CA 91790
MORE INFO

Bon Odori practice
Practice is taking place in June at the East San Gabriel Japanese Community Center, every Tuesday and Thursday, from 7 to 8:30 p.m.

East San Gabriel Japanese Community Center
1203 W Puente Ave,
West Covina, CA 91790
MORE INFO

June 18, 7–8:30 p.m.
June 20, 7–8:30 p.m.
June 25, 7–8:30 p.m.
June 27, 7–8:30 p.m.

June 29, 2024 at 3 p.m. (Long Beach)

Long Beach Japanese Cultural Center
1766 Seabright Ave.
Long Beach, CA 90813
MORE INFO

Bon Odori practice
Mondays and Wednesdays from May 1 to June 26 at 7:30 p.m.

June 17, 7:30 p.m.
June 19, 7:30 p.m.
June 24, 7:30 p.m.
June 26, 7:30 p.m.

June 29, 2024 and June 30, 2024 at 4:30 p.m. (San Fernando Valley)

San Fernando Valley Hongwanji Buddhist Temple
9450 Remick Avenue
Pacoima, CA 91331
MORE INFO

Bon Odori practice
June 25, 6:30–7:30 p.m.
June 27, 6:30–7:30 p.m.

Saturday, July 6, 2024 at 6 p.m. (South L.A)

Senshin Buddhist Temple
1311 West 37th Street
Los Angeles, CA 90007
(323) 731-4617
MORE INFO

Bon Odori practice
See temple calendar for details.

June 19, 7 p.m.
June 24, 7 p.m.
June 27, 7 p.m.
June 30, 12 p.m.
July 5, 7 p.m.

July 13, 2024 and July 14, 2024 at 3:30 p.m. (Downtown Los Angeles)

Los Angeles Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple (Nishi Hongwanji / Los Angeles Betsuin)
815 East First Street
Los Angeles, CA 90012-4304
(213) 680-9130
MORE INFO

Bon Odori practice
June 20, 7–8:30 p.m.
June 23, 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
June 25, 7–8:30 p.m.
July 6, 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
July 10, 7–8:30 p.m.

July 20, 2024 at 4 p.m. (Pasadena)

Pasadena Buddhist Temple
1993 Glen Avenue
Pasadena, CA 91103-1521
(626) 798-4781
MORE INFO

Bon Odori practice
Tuesdays and Thursdays (except July 4) starting June 20, 7–8 p.m.

June 20, 7–8 p.m.
June 25, 7–8 p.m.
June 27, 7–8 p.m.
July 2, 7–8 p.m.
July 9, 7–8 p.m.
July 11, 7–8 p.m.
July 16, 7–8 p.m.
July 18, 7–8 p.m.

July 20, 2024 and July 21, 2024 at 2 p.m. (Anaheim)

Orange County Buddhist Church
909 South Dale Avenue
Anaheim, CA 92804
(714) 827-9590
MORE INFO

Free parking with shuttle service is available from 1:30 PM to 9:00 PM at Magnolia High School.

Magnolia High School
2450 W. Ball Rd., Anaheim

Bon Odori practice
July 1, 7–8 p.m.
July 3, 7–8 p.m.
July 8, 7–8 p.m.
July 10, 7–8 p.m.
July 15, 7–8 p.m.
July 17, 7–8 p.m.

July 20, 2024 and July 21, 2024 at 12 p.m. (Downtown Los Angeles)

Zenshuji Soto Mission
123 South Hewitt Street
Los Angeles, CA 90012
MORE INFO

July 20, 2024 and July 21, 2024 at 3 p.m. (Venice)

Venice Hongwanji Buddhist Temple
12371 Braddock Drive
Culver City, CA 90230-5869
(310) 391-4351
MORE INFO

Bon Odori practice
Mondays and Wednesdays from June 16 to July 15 from 7–8:30 p.m.

June 26, 7–8:30 p.m.
July 1, 7–8:30 p.m.
July 3, 7–8:30 p.m.
July 8, 7–8:30 p.m.
July 10, 7–8:30 p.m.
July 15, 7–8:30 p.m.

July 27, 2024 at 4 p.m. and July 28, 2024 at 3 p.m. (West Los Angeles)

West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple
2003 Corinth Avenue
West Los Angeles, CA 90025
(310) 477-7274
MORE INFO

Bon Odori practice
Tuesdays and Thursdays from June 25 to July 12 (except July 4) from 7 p.m to 8:30 p.m.

June 25, 7–8:30 p.m.
June 27, 7–8:30 p.m.
July 2, 7–8:30 p.m.
July 9, 7–8:30 p.m.
July 11, 7–8:30 p.m.

July 28, 2024 at 3 p.m. (Downtown Los Angeles)

Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple
505 East Third Street
Los Angeles, CA 90013
MORE INFO

Bon Odori practice
Wednesdays from June 19 to July 17 from 7:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

June 26, 7:30-9:00 p.m.
July 3, 7:30-9:00 p.m.
July 10, 7:30-9:00 p.m.
July 17, 7:30-9:00 p.m.

August 3, 2024 to August 4, 2024 at 3 p.m. (Gardena)

Gardena Buddhist Church

1517 West 166th Street
Gardena, CA 97202
(310) 327-9400
MORE INFO

Bon Odori practice
Tuesdays and Thursdays from 7 p.m to 8:30 p.m.

July 9, 7 p.m–8:30 p.m.
July 11, 7 p.m–8:30 p.m.
July 16, 7 p.m–8:30 p.m.
July 18, 7 p.m–8:30 p.m.
July 23, 7 p.m–8:30 p.m.
July 25, 7 p.m–8:30 p.m.

Have a question about Southern California’s Asian American communities?

Josie Huang reports on the intersection of being Asian and American and the impact of those growing communities in Southern California.


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