By Lauren Kawana
On a cool August evening, several hundred people gathered at the Buddhist Church of Oakland to pay homage to loved ones that have passed on—nearing the end of a string of festivals held in the Bay Area for Obon season.
One of nearly a dozen Obon events in Northern California, Oakland’s one-day “Festival of Joy” attracted around 300 people to the downtown-Oakland/Chinatown area. Iconic red and white lanterns hung above several circles of dancers—some dressed in yukata, kimono, hapi coats, and some in casual clothes—all moving in time to the melodies of a live band.
Michael Yoshihara of the San Jose Chidori Band has been playing for festivals like this one since 1989. What he enjoys most about Obon is its “participatory” nature. “We not only get people watching, but a lot of people dancing.”
Yoshihara said “the dancing has increased incredibly” over the years. At the recent San Jose Obon Festival—one of the largest in the Bay, he said there were over 1,300 dancers present, when there was once only about 300. In Oakland, Yoshihara said he was excited to see “four full lines” of dancers as opposed to barely two when he first started playing the festival circuit.
This is the fourth festival the San Jose Chidori Band has played this year and their next stop is Union City this weekend. The band’s nine musicians and six vocalists perform on a voluntary basis and often times must handwrite their own sheet music. “We only hear Obon music on YouTube or CDs so we have to decipher it,” Yoshihara said. “A lot of obon bands are made of traditional Japanese instruments like the shakuhachi and the koto.” Yoshihara, who plays the saxophone and keyboard, said the band works to “translate obon music to what we have which are woodwinds, regular guitar and bass.”
No one seemed to mind the modernized versions of Obon music as they happily encircled the yagura, or raised scaffolding, where church members stood, leading attendees in the dances.
The Buddhist Church of Oakland was established in 1901 and is comprised of about 400 members. Earlier that afternoon before the dancing, it featured a tea ceremony demonstration by ; a koto performance by Shirley and Brian Muramoto; a taiko performance by the Eden Aoba Taiko group.
The chairperson of Oakland Obon Festival, Jon Takagaki, said that he is happy not only church members are in attendance, but others from the community at-large including a truck of firefighters who stopped by to observe the dancing.
Sabrina Rocky and her group of friends were first timers at this festival. Rocky lived in Mie, Japan, for a year teaching English at local preschools and said she missed Japanese culture. “Obon and matsuri (festivals) were one of my favorite things in Japan,” she said. “We looked up Obon festivals in the East Bay and came down.” Rocky also made sure to enjoy a bowl of udon before leaving.
As the sun set, the lanterns illuminated the sky and Takagaki noted the names hanging from each lantern, which represented a loved one who had passed. For a small donation, the public could honor a person in their past. Takagaki honored his family by designating a lantern for his uncle, Henry Yoshisato, who introduced him to the Buddhist Church of Oakland where he also served as President of the board. “It’s such a wonderful church tradition to celebrate Obon and pay respect to those who passed on before us, but yet it’s such a joyous occasion.”
Sitting on the curb and watching the dancers with her son Jaykob while he munched on an ear of corn, Natasha Morimoto also admired the “Festival of Lanterns.” Morimoto, who is half-Japanese, said it was her first time at the Oakland Obon Festival. She grew up in San Francisco and always attended the San Jose festival as a child. Jaykob, 5, was wearing a red happi coat she bought for him in Japantown. “My grandmother said the characters on it say ‘double happiness’, which is so perfect for him,” she said. “I want my son to know his culture. We came here today so he can see the dancing. It’s like the Day of the Dead for Japanese people, but it’s so beautiful.”
Christine Kawabata and her 18-month-old daughter Sophie represented the generations of church members who have come to celebrate Obon in Oakland for years. Kawabata, is from San Francisco, but grew up in San Lorenzo. She was there with her husband, her grandmother, her sister and her mother. “Since I’m older and kind of grown up and gone away, I get to see the kids I used to play basketball with,” Kawabata said.
Her grandmother, Yo Kawabata, 87, has been a church member for over 50 years. Yo said her favorite thing about the Obon festival is “seeing the little ones in the kimono and watching them dance.”
Other parents and children included Erik Rainey of Berkeley, who was carrying his 4-month-old daughter, Samantha. With his wife, Lauren, Erik brought his newly born daughter to experience Obon for the first time. The Raineys met during a study abroad program in Japan and later married. “I’m glad it’s here. Something like this makes you feel like you’re back in Japan,” Rainey said. “We lived in Boston for awhile and Lauren played taiko there but there’s not as much of a Japanese community there, so it’s really nice here.”
Perhaps one of the most enthusiastic Obon dancers to be found at the Oakland festival was Sister Makinya, 88, of Berkeley. She said she enjoys the tradition of Obon because if feels “just like an extension of my tribute to my parents who have passed.” Though she is not a member of any Buddhist churches, she practices for six weeks and said she hits as many Obon festivals as she can in the season. Initially introduced to Obon by her tai chi instructor, Makinya said she’s been dancing since 1998 and “has not missed a year.”