In Japan, Obon is a day to remember the dead.
As a youth, the Obon festival or “carnival” was something I looked forward to every year. It took place at my local Buddhist Temple in West Los Angeles every summer in July. The side street gets blocked off and lined with lit chochin (paper lanterns) that would sway in the western breeze at magic hour. There were no carnival rides, but the festiveness made you feel like there was a lot going on. This was a local event and the attendees were mostly Japanese Americans. I’d go and see my world – J.A. kids from both of my schools, the daily American, and my saturday Japanese school. There was nothing like eating chicken teriyaki, then holding a snow cone, and playing the vendor games like throwing a softball into tic tac toe, “dough ball”, or tossing metal rings to win coins. Then doing it all over again. Life was great on that day.
The adults, what did they do? If they weren’t working at a booth, or donating some time or effort, it was a place to take their kids, buy food which becomes a donation to the temple, and see their friends that once a year outside of funeral services or awkward run-ins at the market. Maybe they purchase a raffle ticket or ten, buy plants from the nursery sale, and that’s about it, but it’s a “community” event that perhaps echoes them to their youths to remember the same things I used to do.
I haven’t been to an Obon in years. My local West Los Angeles Obon takes place at the same weekend as Comic-Con San Diego which I’ve attended 18 years in a row. I’ve long written off going to an Obon, but hearing there was one in Little Tokyo, I yearned to take a look. I arrived at magic hour. The chochin were blowing lightly in the breeze as the sun descended. Stepping in, the stringed lights, the booth set ups with handwritten signs, and the variety of people criss-crossing each other to get from place to place hasn’t changed at all except I was at Nishi-Hongwanji temple in Little Tokyo. Everything looked familiar except the faces. They weren’t the ones I grew up with, they were similar, but different, and no we don’t look the same.
I attended with friends, and I ran into one old junior high classmate who was there with his wife and his child. I forgot that young people get older and they bring their kids, sometimes in strollers to show them off to their other friends. It’s a cycle.
There still is a beer booth, teriyaki, both chicken and beef, sushi, snow cones, snacks, games for kids with prizes including goldfish, and games that skirt on gambling like “doughball”. Cultural exhibits like sumi or even bonsai that I now enjoy but didn’t remember at all when I was a kid. The obon dance part is still a feature. It’s a taiko drummer, recorded music, and a huge group of folks, many wearing kimonos or hapi coats, doing a traditional dance in a huge circle. It’s both cultural and peaceful, although I don’t know what it really means. It’s fun to look at, even though my friends decided to eat teriyaki and play $1 bingo games.
I sat to eat, but then was gifted a card and I watched as people clung to each number in excitement. I marked a few down as they were matching up with the numbers being called out, and then it happened, three more numbers in a row and it was a Bingo! I didn’t know what to do, so my group yelled it for me. Smiles from the other local players emerged although they were probably aching inside that in one game, I won. $75 was dropped off and we made quick plans on how to spend it. I wanted a snow cone. Almost everyone wanted more beer. Chili dogs were sold out. Raffle tickets: a trip for two on American Airlines Business Class. We bought 5 from a future “Miss Little Tokyo” – Nisei Week Queen. The winners will be picked in a month and a half at the Nisei Week event making the $75 last longer than I’d ever thought. The left over $40, we tried to purchase nursery plants, but at 10pm, the event closed and it went to a 24 hour noodle shop in Korea Town, almost feeding our group of 6.
$75 really isn’t much, but this $75 was special, it got a few of us red faced, it might take two to Tokyo – while funding the Nisei Week event, and it’s tiny wealth spread from Little Tokyo to Korea Town, bridging us into another world.
Photos Set Below