For over 500 years, Japanese culture has celebrated the annual Buddhist holiday of Obon (お盆). During the traditionally three-day event, participants honor their ancestors, whose spirits are believed to return to this world each year to visit their living relatives.
While modern-day celebrations of Obon have become synonymous with dancing, family reunions and consumption of cultural foods, Obon has a long historical and spiritual significance to Japan. Believed to have originated in India and then later spread throughout Asia, Obon festivities mirror the story of a disciple of Buddha. In the original story, the disciple uses supernatural powers to contact the spirit of his deceased mother. When he finds her in the “Realm of Hungry Ghosts,” the disciple seeks Buddha’s help to save her from a fate of insatiable hunger. Through Buddha’s instruction, the disciple prepared offerings of food and lanterns for traveling Buddhist monks. Upon doing so, his mother’s spirit was freed.
Traditionally, Japanese participants hang lanterns in front of their houses to guide their ancestors’ spirits, perform Bon Odori (Japanese folk dances), listen to taiko (the art of Japanese drumming), visit and clean their ancestors’ graves and make food offerings at their home altars. At the end of the three-day celebration, floating lanterns are released into bodies of water to guide the spirits back to the realm of the deceased.
According to the lunar calendar, Obon roughly corresponds with the middle of August. Therefore, in Japan, Obon is mainly observed from August 13-16 and is considered one of Japan’s three major holiday seasons alongside Golden Week and New Year’s. However, according to the solar calendar, Obon falls a month earlier, meaning that in other celebrating countries like the United States, Obon is often observed during the middle of July. Additionally, in China and Vietnam, a similar celebration takes place by the name of the Hungry Ghost Festival. Obon festivals also occur in Malaysia and Korea, though also by different names.
This year, I attended one of the largest Obon celebrations in the U.S.: the 2023 West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple Annual Summer Obon Festival. Halted after the pandemic, the 2023 Obon was the first of its kind in four years. Enthusiastically welcomed back by the Japanese-American community of Los Angeles, this year’s Obon was a lively experience.
The event effortlessly synthesized traditional elements of Obon with more contemporary components that celebrated the local community. For example, I attended a tea ceremony demonstration, in which the ceremony master followed the Zen Buddhist tradition of carefully preparing cups of matcha according to longstanding choreography. Along with the tea, we were presented with a small mochi confection topped with a sweet gelatin layer and fish decal. Personally, I love the chewy, starchy and subtly sweet flavor of mochi. Unsweetened matcha, on the other hand … not for me.
After the tea ceremony, I toured the panel of booths manned by different fundraising community groups. There was a wide variety: ring toss, a fishbowl-throwing game with live goldfish as prizes, muffin pan Moneyball (a sort of horizontal pachinko), seasonal fruits and vegetables and event merchandise. In addition, the West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple kitchen cooked up some Japanese favorites, including gyoza, curry rice, chili hot dog rice (despite sounding relatively unappetizing, my boyfriend claims this is a beloved Japanese-American staple), onigiri, shaved ice and teriyaki chicken bowls. The gyoza, filled with ground pork, seasonings and chopped cabbage, was steamed to perfection. A side of pickled cabbage also provided a sharp zing to pleasantly contrast with the umami gyoza filling. I also tried the chili hot dog rice, which, while simple, brought a complex flavor profile that transcended cultural borders. The combination of chili, which is speculated to have Texan-Mexican origins, and hot dogs, a distinctly American cuisine, served at a Japanese festival threw my tastebuds for a loop in a surprisingly agreeable way.
The best part of the night (which would have been bingo, had I actually won anything and not wasted $10 on cards) was the Bon Odori. In the outdoor courtyard, large, concentric circles marked in chalk indicated lanes in which to dance. All participants lined up in a lane, the taiko drums started and the dancing proceeded forward slowly in a counterclockwise motion. Having no prior practice with Japanese folk dancing, the Bon Odori circle was daunting at first. However, I was encouraged to simply jump in and mimic the person in front of me. The movements were simple and repeated frequently, making Bon Odori movements easy to pick up and perfect for all age groups. It was rhythmic, soothing and incredibly enjoyable.
Anyone who wishes to participate in an upcoming Obon ceremony can Google their local Buddhist temple’s event list. For UC Santa Barbara students, the Buddhist Church of Santa Barbara is hosting Obon on August 12. San Luis Obispo (SLO) also offers an Obon celebration at the SLO Buddhist Church on August 5. I highly recommend attending for anyone interested in Japanese food and culture!