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Tuesday, July 2, 2013

O.C. Buddhist Church Obon 2013!

Obon season is upon us! Dancing, drumming, food and festival games, let me paint a picture for you:

Japanese lanterns sway gently above us, silhouetted by a beautiful sunset: fiery red that roars across the horizon before extinguishing into a riot of pink and purple.

 Gold and silver, glitter and sparkle.

Nothing is as beautiful as a woman in a colorful kimono. In the sweltering heat, the thin cotton yukata allows one to stay above it all and the women here are glamorous despite the temperature. An elderly woman in a purple one patterned with white and silver epitomizes grace and refinement as she dances. Swirling and twirling to the steady beat of a taiko drum, these dancers circle around a center tower strung with lanterns, people watching and clapping along on the sidelines.

A little girl darts out amid the dancers, giggling madly in her flip flops and waving a clacking noise-maker gleefully. Soon enough, an older gentleman in a colorful orange happi coat scoops her up and brings her back to family. Little girls in their first yukata rush toward each other to compare obi, then break apart to have a furious war of waving uchiwa fans at each other.

People are shouting over the heads of others, recognizing friends from church. Backs are clapped, a bite of dango is offered, and then both parties swivel to smile at a child walking by with a precious bag of water containing one goldfish sparkling like a jewel at the bottom.

Above the beat of the drum, winding its way around the happy chatter, is the unmistakable aroma of Japanese festival food. It smells like coming home.

And then there's me, the perennial wallflower.

Not dancing, not talking, just watching this happy spectacle. There must have been skinned knees, lost fans, dead goldfish--but I never saw it.

Originating from the Chinese Ghost Festival, Obon (お盆) is a Buddhist celebration honoring one's ancestors. The story goes that a Buddhist disciple with powers to communicate with the dead found his deceased mother suffering in the afterlife. The Buddha instructed the disciple to give offerings to Buddhist monks on the 15th day of the 7th month. After doing so, he sees his mother released from torment and he begins to dance with joy. In that moment, he realizes how utterly selfless his mother was and just how much he took her for granted.

In addition to the folk dance Bon Odori (盆踊り) that started over five centuries ago to welcome the spirits of the dead, most modern Bon festivals include carnival games, festival food, and taiko drumming.

The most iconic carnival game of Obon has to be the goldfish booth, and indeed this weekend at the O.C. Buddhist Church it was the most popular. This version, instead of trying to scoop the goldfish with a paper scoop, the children attempted to land a ping-pong ball into one of the tiny goldfish bowls. Other games included basketball shooting, plinko, and a string game.

Of course, no celebration would be complete without food. At this particular Bon festival, there was udon, spam musubi, inarizushi, oden, ika teriyaki, Okinawan dango, bubble tea, Hawaiian shaved iced, and more. I had never tried the Okinawa version of dango, and my grandmother and I both agreed it was delicious but very rich!

Obon here in the United States differs from the celebrations in Japan by also celebrating Japanese American culture and history. Not only was there a booth selling books about Buddhism, but the Go For Broke National Education Center had a booth.

For those of you not familiar with the story of the 100th Infantry Battalion, 442nd Infantry Regiment, and Military Intelligence Service of WWII: Japanese American men volunteered for military service during World War II, at the same time their family and friends were forcibly removed from their homes and relocated to crude internment camps despite being American citizens, innocent women and children.

And despite this prejudice, despite the unwelcome return awaiting them, despite the signs on restaurants back home saying "No Japs Allowed!," these Japanese American boys became the most decorated unit in American military history for its size. I was happy that the Go For Broke booth was at Obon, so I could thank one of them personally, Don Seki.

I brought my grandmother to the Orange County Buddhist Church's Obon, and she was amazed at the changes since she had last visited. My great-grandmother was a regular member of the church, and my grandmother reminisced about the tiny and relatively subdued celebrations of her childhood before the Civil Rights Movement.

She exclaimed when we pulled into the parking that all these people couldn't possibly be heading to the church. During the dancing, she told me that she hadn't imagined that Obon here in Southern California would ever be so big and joyous.

"Grandma, no one needs to be afraid of being a Japanese American anymore."

She agreed, sounding a little sad to me.

Obon is about giving thanks and celebrating our ancestors and the sacrifices they gave for us. Buddhist teachings also tell us we are all related, all interconnected.

Thank you Grandma, and thank you to all the Japanese Americans that came before me.

Here's a calendar of Bon festivals in California.

P.S. Think the talk about glorious sunsets is just artistic literary license? Check out my fellow blogger Bebe Loves Okazu's instagram shot of the sunset!


  1. Craig Tanihara's father was in the 442nd infantry.
    Very lovely description of the celebration

    1. I didn't know that! I looked him up, according to Go For Broke he served in both the 100th and 442nd. He's on the monument at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo.

  2. An amazing post--you have such writing talent and a sense of traditions surviving and changing in the context of our richly contradictory America...brava!

    1. You are such a sweetheart thank you! And yeah, one of things I think my grandmother enjoyed the most about the Obon festivities is that it had definitely changed, but a lot of the sentiment and joy behind it had stayed the same.

  3. Hi Miss Mochi,

    thanks for posting all the recipes that you do - I grew up in Hawaii, I am part Hawaiian and part Japanese and part a bunch of other things, so they really hit home for me now that I live on the east coast. I recently visited Japan, and ever since I got back I've been hungrily visiting your site ;)

    One comment I had to make on this post is that I don't think the treat you had was Okinawan dango. In hawaii, we have delicious pastries that look exactly like the ones you showed - they are called andagi and are a flour based donut, not a rice based treat. Here is a recipe:

    I've used that recipe a bunch - when I go back to Hawaii to visit my family I make andagi and lumpia for them since my mom doesn't like to fry.


    1. Actually, Okinawan Dango and Sata Andagi are the same thing. They are also called Okinawan Doughnuts, or just andagi (which is the most common in Hawaii).

      Sata Andagi is actually what they are called in Okinawan dialect, Okinawan Dangos are what Japanese Americans call them here in Southern California.

      Absolutely, they are not rice-based like most dango are. The naming "dango" just refers to the round shape.

      Here's an article from a Japanese American whose family originated from Okinawa for reference:

    2. Thanks for the correction :)

  4. I have been thinking of attending the Orange County Buddhist Church but have been hesitant due to the fact that I'm white and I'm most of the photos I've seen, the people attending have been Asian and I'm afraid I won't be accepted there. Do you know how accepting people are at that church and if they would be okay with me attending? I really would like to attend but I'm not sure how exclusive it is and I don't want to feel like people don't want me there. Thank you!

    1. I have not attended their regular services. I recommend reaching out to them directly. However, the majority of Japanese Americans these days are mixed race and so a lot of the younger generations may have Caucasian partners and mixed children, so you may not be as out of place as you think.