Two weekends ago was the Sawtelle/West LA Obon Festival, hosted by the West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple. I went last year for the first time and returned this year because I’d liked it so much. Obon is a Japanese Buddhist festival for remembering the dead and celebrating with joy and gratitude because of the life they have given us. At the West LA Buddhist Temple, there are countless food stalls and carnival games. The temple itself is also open, and there are displays with many photos documenting the history of the temple in the neighborhood. I don’t know very much about the history of Japanese-American Buddhism, but last year I was struck by how much the structure and activities of temple life resembled those of American churches. (Although I’m pretty sure there was a youth accordion band, and I’m not sure how many churches have those!) I interpreted these similarities as an assimilation strategy, but I should emphasize I know very little about this.
This year, my friends and I arrived in time to snag good seats (on the asphalt) for the taiko performance. I always like watching the drummers’ movements and feeling the drumbeats in my eardrums and my chest. After the taiko, we bought bowls of udon with sliced pork and fish cake and plunked ourselves down on the end of a driveway to wait for the dancing to start. The dancing is my favorite part of the festival. The street is blocked off, and the dancers move in one big circuit following chalk lines drawn on the asphalt. In the middle of the block is a platform/tower called a yagura, where a taiko drummer plays along with the recorded songs.
The minister of the temple delivered a meditation from the yagura, and then the procession of dancers entered in from one end of the street as the first dance began. During each dance, they’re moving forward, but it takes longer than one dance to complete the circuit of the block. The dancers wear beautiful yukata (summer kimono), often with floral patterns, or happi coats representing the different area temples, or just their regular clothes. There are dancers of all ages, from toddlers to the elderly, of all genders, of all races, and it doesn’t matter how well you can do the dances. The announcer encourages anyone to join in. The reason I love the dancing at Obon is because it’s so joyful, everyone is welcome, and it looks like a diverse community and neighborhood coming together to share something on a pretty summer evening. It’s rooted in a specific religious and cultural tradition, but it embraces everyone who comes.
Next year, I’m plotting to rope my friends into going to the dance practices in the weeks leading up to the festival so we can dance too.