2019 Obon Festival at West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple | July 27 & 28, 2019

2019 WLA Obon Information and Obon Schedule Information

2019 WLA Obon Festival will be on Sat & Sun, July 27 & 28.
Download the 2019 WLABT Obon Festival Flyer herelogo_pdf
Download the printable 2019 Southern District Obon Schedule herelogo_pdf
Click here for map and directions.

2019 Obon Dances

Bon Odori Uta | Goshugi Ondo | Okesa Utaeba | Oyama Ondo | Shigisan Ondo (tenugui) | Shiawase Samba | Nagasaki Nonnoko Bushi | Narita Bayashi | Pokemon Ondo | Ichi Tasu Ichi | Kyushu Tanko Bushi | Bon Odori Uta

Visit Must Love Japan logo_external_link to learn some of the dances.

2012 Video Highlight Reel

Obon Photos at SmugMug

2017 logo_external_link |  2014 logo_external_link | 2013 logo_external_link | 2012 logo_external_link | 2011 logo_external_link | 2010 pt.1 logo_external_link | 2010 pt. 2 logo_external_link | 2009 logo_external_link | 2008 logo_external_link | 2007 logo_external_link 

Obon Demystified



O-bon or only Bon [wikilogo_external_link is a Japanese Buddhist holiday to honor the departed spirits of one’s ancestors. This Buddhist festival has evolved into a family reunion holiday during which people from the big cities return to their home towns and visit and clean their ancestors’ graves. Traditionally including a dance festival, it has existed in Japan for more than 500 years. It is held from July 13 (August 13 according to the lunar calendar still observed in many regions) to the 15th (“Welcoming Obon” and “Farewell Obon” respectively) in the eastern part of Japan (Kanto), and in August in the western part. In recent years, however, most parts of Tokyo, and by extension, the media, hold Obon in August to coincide with the summer holiday period. Obon shares some similarities with the predominantly Mexican observance of el Día de los Muertos.

Obon is a shortened form of the legendary Urabonne/Urabanna. It is Sanskrit for “hanging upside down in hell and suffering” (Sanskrit:Ullambana). The Japanese believe they should ameliorate the suffering of the “Urabanna”.

Bon Odori originates from the story of Mokuren, a disciple of Shakyamuni, who saw a vision of his deceased mother in the Realm of Hungry Ghosts where she was indulging in her own selfishness. Greatly disturbed, he went to the Buddha and asked how he could release his mother from this realm. Buddha answered, “On the 15th of July, provide a big feast for the past seven generations of dead.” The disciple did this and, thus, saw his mother’s release. He also began to see the true nature of her past unselfishness and the many sacrifices that she had made for him. The disciple, happy because of his mother’s release and grateful for his mother’s kindness, danced with joy. From this dance of joy comes Bon Odori or “Bon Dance”, a time in which ancestors and their sacrifices are remembered and appreciated.

Toro Nagashi is the floating of paper lanterns on the last evening of Obon, to guide the spirits. in their journey.

Bon Odori (Bon dance) is an event held during Obon. It is celebrated as a reminder of the gratefulness one should feel toward one’s ancestors.

Originally a Nenbutsu folk dance to express the effusive welcome for the spirits of the dead, the style of celebration varies in many aspects from region to region. Each region has a respective local Bon dance, as well as respective music accompanying the dance. The music accompanying the dance can be songs specifically pertinent to the spiritual message of Obon, or local min’yo folk songs. Consequently, the Bon dance will look and sound different from region to region. Hokkaido, or northern Japan, is known for a folk-song known as “Soran Bushi.” The song “Tokyo Ondo” needs no explanation. Residents of the Kansai area will recognize the famous “Kawachi Ondo.” Tokushima in Shikoku is very famous for its “Awa Odori,” or “fool’s dance,” and in the far south, one can hear the “Ohara Bushi” of Kagoshima, Kyuushuu.

The way in which the dance is performed is also different in each region, though the typical Bon dance involves people lining up around a high wooden building made especially for the festival called a ‘yagura’. The yagura is usually also the bandstand for the musicians and singers of the Obon music. Some dances proceed clock-wise, and some dances proceed counter-clock-wise around the yagura. Some dances reverse during the dance, though most do not. At times, people face the yagura and move towards and away from it. Still some dances, such as the Kagoshima Ohara dance, and the Tokushima Awa Odori, simply proceed in a straight line through the streets of the town.

The dance of a region can depict the area’s history and specialization. For example, the movements of the dance of the Tanko Bushi (the “coal mining song”) of old Miike Mine in Kyuusu show the movements of miners, i.e. digging, cart pushing, lantern hanging, etc. Because everyone dancing performs the same feet and hand movements in unison, it really is an interesting and beautiful dance to behold.

There are other ways in which a regional Bon dance can vary. Some dances involve the use of different kinds of fans, others involve the use of small towels. Some require the users to use small wooden clappers they use during the dance. The “Hanagasa Odori” of Yamagata is particularly interesting, for its dancers use a flower-decorated hat or “hanagasa” for the dance.

The music that is played during the Bon dance is not limited to Obon music and min’yo; some modern enka hits and kids tunes written to the beat of the “ondo” are also used to dance to during Obon season. Particularly famous is the “Pokemon Ondo,” which needs no explanation.

The Bon dance tradition is said to have started in the later years of the Muromachi period as a public entertainment. In the course of time, the original religious meaning has faded, and the dance has become associated with summer.

To celebrate O-Bon in Okinawa, the eisa drum dance is performed instead.

Bon Odori is observed at Japanese Buddhist temples throughout North America (United States and Canada). In cities like Los Angeles and Honolulu, a Bon Odori festival occurs most weekends from July through August. For many temples, the Bon Odori Festival is a major fundraising activity for the temple and brings together temple members to prepare and staff booths for food, games, and merchandise. Some temples separate out the Bon Odori dancing from the more commercial food booth aspect so that their members can all participate in dancing. Special Obon services held at local cemetaries often occur in the weeks proceeding or following the Bon Odori. Because the original members of these temples came from various regions of Japan, Bon Odori Festivals often feature dances from all over Japan.

What is Obon? by Rev. Patti Usuki

portrait_patti_usukiObon is a Buddhist observance that was originally observed in Mahayana Buddhist countries, including China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.

Obon season is a time to express our gratitude to loved ones who have passed on before us. Without them, we would not be who we are today, due to the basic tenet of interdependence. We would not be where we are and we would not be able to do the things we do to enjoy life. Just think about the number of people involved in creating each of us. If we go back just thirty generations, we can calculate that there were over two billion parents, starting with our two parents, their four parents, and so on—and that’s just the physical part.

Since we’re all influenced by a countless number of beings, our interconnections, and therefore our debt of gratitude, is without bounds. Thus, temples hold an Obon memorial service to enable people to pay tribute to the departed. The service is usually held separately from the festival so that the sangha (Buddhist community) can participate in this solemn and respectful remembrance in quiet reflection.

The word “Obon” is the abbreviated name of the ancient Ullambana Sutra, whose Japanese pronunciation is Urabon. The sutra tells of the Buddhist monk, Maudgalyayana (Mokuren in Japanese) who offered food to the sangha in an effort to release his mother from her hellish torments. When she became liberated, her son is said to have danced for joy.

Obon Festival and Bon Odori

In Japan, Obon has been held since 657 CE. It is observed in July or August. A commonly held belief among people in Japan is that the disembodied spirits of the dead return to visit at this time of year. This belief is not supported by Jodo Shin Buddhists, who consider such a belief to be an unfounded superstition.

Most Japanese-American Buddhists belong to the Jodo Shinshu school (including the sangha of West LA Buddhist Temple), so it is important to understand the history and significance of our Obon Festival. It is not, as some mistakenly believe, to welcome back the spirits of the dead. Instead, it is a time of gratitude, giving, and joy in the Truth of Life. Hence, it is also known as Kangi-e, or the Gathering of Joy.

The celebration of joy first began simply with Bon odori, or dancing. It is unique to Japanese Buddhism and is thought to have evolved from the Nembutsu Odori of dancers who played instruments while chanting “Namo Amida Butsu”—I take refuge in Infinite Light and Life, Immeasurable Wisdom and Compassion— symbolized by Amida Buddha. Bon dancing was first taught in America at the San Francisco Buddhist Temple in 1931 and spread to other temples. The festival or carnival was added much later as a temple fundraising opportunity, since the dance became an annual tradition that drew such large crowds of participants and onlookers.

The dancing begins and ends with a short Buddhist reflection. Participants gather in rings around a yagura, a central raised platform, and dance to the accompaniment of singing and taiko drums. The folk dances usually tell stories of traditional occupations such as fishing and farming. Everyone is encouraged to join in with the seasoned dancers as they circle around the yagura, often wearing colorful yukata (summer kimono) or happi coats representing various area temples. It doesn’t matter whether you are Buddhist or not, whether you are new to Bon odori or whether you have “two left feet.” The important thing is to leave your ego behind and simply express your joy and gratitude for life through the dance.

Rev. Masao Kodani, Minister Emeritus of Senshin Buddhist Temple, points out that the memory of deceased loved ones should urge us to awaken to our deluded selves and live fully in Truth-Reality. Thus, Bon odori is a spiritual activity in which we “just dance, without fretting over how one looks, nor showing off one’s ability … dance just as you are with no conniving, no calculating, no image protecting or flaunting.” But, he points out, most of us would rather practice before we feel we’re ready to dance in front of others—in much the same way that we rehearse “really living” and only end up watching life go by. Just dance. Just BE, in every moment, and you will feel true fulfillment and pure, ego-less joy.

In the Southern California area, the sixteen Jodo Shinshu temples of the Buddhist Churches of America, including West LA Buddhist Temple, take turns holding Obon Festivals and Odori every weekend from June through August, making for a joyful summer of shared experiences. No wonder it is a major temple event.

Why We Dance at Obon

By Rip Rense and Annie Chuck

We have been kindly asked to write a short piece about why we dance in the Obon Festival. There are many reasons.

First is the hospitality and graciousness of the temples in allowing us to participate. When my wife, Annie, suggested six years ago that anyone was welcome to attend West L.A. Buddhist Temple odori practices, my response was “go right ahead!” I’ve never been a dancer, a few foxtrot lessons when I was a kid notwithstanding.

Yet Annie talked me into joining a practice one evening, and I found the moves counterintuitive, baffling to the point of frustration. Suffice to say that my patience was not exemplary. I quit. Annie persevered, though, and I gradually rejoined, eventually figuring out that “back right” meant “saluting” with my left hand, etc. Eureka!

In time, to my surprise, I came to love it to the point where we attend the Obon Odoris all over Southern California.

But this is not so much frivolity to us. We do not regard the event as a mere party, though we relish the festivity of it. We have learned about the history of Obon, the Ullambana Sutra, the traditions as they exist in Japan and United States, and the purpose of affirming life and acknowledging departed persons who have influenced us, whether positively or negatively.

Not long after we began attending Obon Festivals, we purchased the anniversary CD produced by Senshin Buddhist Temple, in order to read the lyrics to the songs, and understand a little about their histories. We also took advantage of a talk about Obon given in Little Tokyo by Rev. Mas Kodani, which we found very rewarding. Rev. Kodani’s well known notions of “tada odore,” or “just dance,” were illuminating. The idea of reaching a point unfettered by ego, and just being in the moment, is one that we embraced long ago as a general approach to life (intellectually, if not always in practice.) Applying it to the dancing seemed natural.

So whether we are doing Tanko Bushi or Shiawase Samba or Hokkai no Abarembo, we are always mindful of those moments free of both embarrassment and showing off, the times when you “tada odore.” Such moments do not always happen, or even often, and when they do, they are fleeting. Over in the snap of a finger, as per Rev. Kodani’s metaphor. Yet they do, as he points out, put us “in the moment,” in the same “tada” existence as all the stuff of life.

But this is not to make too much of a complicated thing out of the proceedings. This is hardly a solemn, ascetic ritual, but rather, as the Jodoshinshu term for Obon, Kangi-e, goes, “a gathering of joy.” We relish joining everyone in the great circle around the yagura—the symbolism of human cooperation is very moving—and we love the intoxicating colors of the yukatas, the brash taiko displays, the smoke from the chicken teriyaki, the cool kintoki. (We haven’t been brave enough to try the chili rice or spam musubi yet, though.)

While West L.A. is our “home” (which we recently formalized by joining the temple), we greatly enjoy visiting the other Obon Odoris and experiencing the varieties of observance and service. In particular, Senshin’s invitation to light oil lamps in memory of others is very affecting (and the cold post-dance somen is refreshing!)

Of course, we also get a great kick out of the variety of dance styles on display: the robust, flamboyant and sometimes free form stylings of some of the men; the economic grace of the ladies; the classical flourishes of some of the more serious students; the exuberance of the young people; the confused steps of the little kids. They are all beautiful.

In sum, we dance for many reasons, and for no reason at all (tada.) We feel privileged to be a part of Obon, and it is, without a doubt, the happiest time of year for us.

How to Dress In Yukata | Part One

How to Dress In Yukata | Part Two