By John Sammon—The annual Obon Bazaar to be held in San Jose’s Japantown on July 14 and 15 this year will feature dancing from the Fukushima region of Northern Japan, a timely tribute, for this is the same region where the disastrous earthquake and tsunami struck on April 11, 2011.
“One of the dances selected this year is the ‘Fukushima Ondo,’ a dance from the Fukushima region of Japan,” said head dance instructor and choreographer Reiko Iwanaga. “Following up on the suggestion of P.J. Hirabayashi, we will dance the number in honor of the survivors and in memory of the victims of the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan last year.”
This is the 77th annual San Jose Obon Festival and will bring together generations of families, but is also a unique opportunity for visitors to experience the rich cultural heritage of Japantown, while perusing gift items from local stores and sampling Japanese dishes. The bazaar will feature foods such sushi, beef and chicken teriyaki, gyoza (Japanese style dumpling), udon (a Japanese noodle dish), tempura, and festival favorites like corn on the cob and strawberry shortcake.
In addition there will be game booths for kids, food booths, cultural exhibits and demonstrations.
The Obon celebration is Japantown’s largest festival, one of the largest in the country, and has about 1,200 dancers. Most of the dances are either religious or secular, but are selected for their simplicity so that spectators and visitors can join in.
Festival admittance is free.
The festivities begin at noon on July 14 between Jackson and Taylor streets four blocks east of the Japantown Ayer Light Rail Station. Drivers of pedicabs, a type of bicycle-powered rickshaw, will be on hand to deliver visitors from the light rail station to the festival and back.
Some of the dancing will be accompanied by the world-famous San Jose Taiko, a renowned ensemble co-founded by Hirabayashi that performs traditional Japanese drumming as well as Japanese American variants.
When asked if dance movements symbolized something, Iwanaga gave two examples of a few dances that do have significant steps: The 100-Year or ‘Hyakunin Ondo,’ danced a few years ago in honor of the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin’s 100th anniversary was choreographed by Reiko Iwanaga to fit the Buddhist lyrics. The other example is ‘Ei Ja Nai Ka,’ a popular dance choreographed by Hirabayashi, commemorating the arrival of the Issei (first generation Japanese immigrants) settlers in California.
“P.J. created the stylized movements of the dance to symbolize the kind of work Japanese pioneers performed, including fishing and railroad labor,” Iwanaga explained.
Most of the dances are performed with the backing of the 21-member San Jose-based Chidori Band. Iwanaga choreographed their signature song, Chidori Band Ondo. The ‘Obon no Uta’ was choreographed by her late father-in-law, the Reverend Yoshio Iwanaga. That number is traditionally performed at the start and the end of the dancing.
“Reverend Iwanaga is the minister who brought the Obon Odori dance tradition to the United States over 80 years ago and traveled the West Coast teaching dance,” Reiko Iwanaga said.
Iwanaga, whose professional name is Hanayagi Reimichi, started classical Japanese dance lessons at the age of four and spent three years learning from masters in Japan. A graduate of the University of California San Francisco and Columbia University, she owns an event planning company and is executive director of the Contemporary Asian Theater Scene (CATS), a San Jose-based nonprofit committed to presenting Asian Pacific American arts in Silicon Valley.
Obon dancing will be held both nights of the festival. Due to the large numbers of dancers, one main yagura and two auxiliary yagura will feature dancers for the public to follow. The festival starts at 12 noon on Saturday, July 14, and Sunday, July 15, with dancing to be held at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday and at 6 p.m. on Sunday.
Young children, parents, and grandparents of many ethnicities wearing traditional happi coats or Japanese kimonos will lend color to the scene. Attractions include free samples of one of Japan’s premier non-alcoholic beers as Kirin will be offering it to the public.
The Buddhist Betsuin Church located at 640 North 5th St. in Japantown has long been a center of religious and community activity. Reverend Gerald Sakamoto said the temple is the organizer of the event.
“Obon originated in Japan in the 6th century,” he said. “Originally, it was based on the Buddhist experiences of a man named Shakyamuni, who lived in India 2,000 years ago.”
Shakyamuni lived from 563 BC to 483 BC and according to the story came to regret that he had not been a good son after his mother had died.
“This encouraged him to do something for his fellow (Buddhist) monks and students to relieve the regret,” Sakamoto explained. “We came to celebrate the lives of our families and friends, and maybe people we don’t even know, anyone who has had an influence on us.”
Buddhism stresses living in harmony and the resolution of difficulties, Sakamoto explained.
“Understanding the causes of our personal difficulties is central,” he said. “The key is to develop a fundamental feeling of harmony.”
Visitors to the festival will be allowed inside the temple building for brief tours and a basic instruction in the symbols and practices of Buddhism will be held at 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Originally begun in 1902, the Buddhist Church Betsuin is affiliated with the Jodo Shinshu Nishi Hongwanji branch of Buddhism, founded over 800 years ago. A member of the Buddhist Churches of America, the temple has its worldwide headquarters in Kyoto, Japan. The church has two ministers, Sakamoto and the Rinban Kenshin Fujimoto.
Sakamoto said Japantown has changed over the years. San Jose has one of only three Japantowns left in California including those in San Francisco and Los Angeles after the forced internment of Japanese Americans during World War II extinguished other such communities.
“This area has had its share of difficulties, and it’s constantly changing,” he noted. “There’s a lot of diversity.”
In addition to holding church services, the temple participates in many community events such as Earth Day in May and has also taken an active role in collecting and providing monetary relief for disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and Japan’s Earthquake and Tsunami.
The festival’s ban on the use of Styrofoam and serving foods and beverages with biodegradable plates, bowls and cups avoided using local landfills by 94 percent and earned it a “Zero Waste Certificate” from the Environmental Services Dept.
People wishing more information on the Obon Festival or the Buddhist Church Betsuin may visit www.sjbetsuin.com.