Choreographer Marilyn Ozawa makes sure that her interpretation of this custom is accessible to all who care to join, regardless of age or familiarity with the routine.
"I try to keep it upbeat and have the dances flow so that the children really enjoy it," she says. "My goal is to make it so that anyone can come up and participate."
Ozawa is a practiced veteran: this weekend will mark her 43rd year teaching Bon Odori at the Mountain View Buddhist Temple in preparation for the Obon Festival, an ancient Japanese custom that honors ancestral spirits and loved ones.
The Mountain View Buddhist Temple Obon Festival is open from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturday, July 20, and noon to 8:30 p.m. Sunday, July 21, with the Bon Odori dance scheduled for 7 p.m. The temple is located at 575 N. Shoreline Blvd.
Since the temple's completion in 1957, it has been hosting the Obon Festival at its location on Stierlin Road and North Shoreline Boulevard. This year's festival offers cultural displays of food, games and performances, with an expanded children's activities booth and handicraft sales.
"Obon is our biggest event of the year, and we're happy to see many friends, neighbors, and community members come out to enjoy themselves," says festival chairman Richard Endo.
The festival is meant to be a time of happiness: in the same vein as the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos, Obon is a celebration. "Many Buddhist temples have their Obon Festivals this time a year to remember and honor all those who have passed on before us, appreciate all that they have done for us and recognize the continuation of their deeds upon our lives," Endo explains. "It's a time for self-reflection, which is an important Buddhist practice."
According to temple member John Arima, the traditions that typify Japanese-American Obon festivals were brought over by the first Japanese immigrants to the West Coast generations ago, and have remained unchanged. As a result, much of the religious connotation of the event has given way to a more unrestricted sense of ceremony. This understanding of Obon is in line with Jodo Shinshu, the temple's denomination.
"For Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, Obon observation is called kangi-ye, which translates to 'a gathering of joy.' Though Obon is traditionally thought of as a time to remember your passed loved ones, that doesn't mean that it is a mournful period," Arima says.
Festival attendees might see Arima playing the taiko drums with the temple's adult taiko class in their yearly recital. The taiko ensemble, a relatively new art form known as kumi daiko, is a popular event at the festival. The large, barrel-shaped drums make an impressive din, especially when played in unison.
According to taiko teacher and Jun Daiko performance artist Susan Yuen, taiko has traditionally played a large role in Japanese festival music. "It's loud, it's lively, and it adds a very festive atmosphere," Yuen says.
Alongside the festivities and the cultural displays of ikebana flower arrangements and stone art, food and handicrafts are offered for sale. Temple organizations, such as the Youth Buddhist Association, prepare sushi, manju, teriyaki, tempura and spam musubi, as well as corn dogs and other snacks.
Volunteers have been working for weeks to prepare the handicrafts booth. Several women sewed hundreds of aprons, which will all be for sale. Some college students who were formerly involved with the YBA made earrings and other jewelry out of tiny origami creations. Many of the crafts are environmentally sustainable: one temple member ornately decorated jars and other containers with beautiful Japanese prints, and another recycled plastic bags into totebags and hats.
Craft group member Jeanne Ohara spoke of the camaraderie inspired by the hard work. "Everybody works together, and they all are so giving," she says.
"It's a good feeling that I can do something and I can do it well enough and to have someone (who) will buy it and treasure it," she says.
The proceeds from the festival go to the continued maintenance and restoration of the temple grounds, Endo says. In the past year, the temple has been upgraded to be compatible with current seismic and ADA regulations. Additionally, the temple has recently undergone more cosmetic transformations, including extension of several buildings and the installation of a nokotsudo, or columbarium, which Endo believes has been important in strengthening the ties between the families and their temple.
"Our temple is very proud to have such a nice facility, says Endo, who credits the legacy of the temple's pioneering "isseis and niseis" — the first- and second-generation Japanese-American members, whom he referred to as the pillars of the temple. "Their spirit keeps us going," Endo says.
For information, go to mvbuddhisttemple.org.