FAQ: 5 things to know about SoCal's many Obon festivals

Kiyose Bon Odori dancers at an Obon festival in 2010.
Kiyose Bon Odori dancers at an Obon festival in 2010.
Tokyo Times/Creative Commons/flickr
Kiyose Bon Odori dancers at an Obon festival in 2010.
Taiko drummers perform at an Obon festival in San Jose.
ToastyKen/Creative Commons/flickr
Kiyose Bon Odori dancers at an Obon festival in 2010.
A paper lantern is lit during the Obon season typically celebrated in the months of July and August.
Ben's Optic/Creative Commons/flickr
Kiyose Bon Odori dancers at an Obon festival in 2010.
A Taiko drummer produces rhythmic beats during Obon, a Japanese Buddhist festival celebrated by different people from across the globe.
Tokyo Times/Creative Commons/flickr

Folks throughout Southern California will be celebrating the intersection of life and death during the next two months at Obon, a traditional Japanese Buddhist festival. Hundreds of paper lanterns will illuminate the night sky as the dramatic sounds of the Taiko drum attract crowds and curious spectators.

“When we are dancing, we are dancing because in essence, we are saying, ‘thanks to my ancestors and to my heritage, to yours and to everyone who is dancing,'" said Reverend Lee Rosenthal from the Pasadena Buddhist Temple. "We are dancing with joy, and laughter in our hearts to celebrate human life.” 

Similar to other mainstream traditions like Dia De Los Muertos, Obon has rooted itself in American tradition. It continues to be celebrated by people from various nationalities across the globe, in countries like Argentina and China. 

Here are five things to know before you go. Scroll to the bottom for a list of local festivities. 

1. What is Obon?

The festival is a chance for Japanese Americans and the larger community to honor those who have passed. But it's also a way for people to celebrate and express their gratitude for being alive and living in the moment. In Japan, it was believed that the deceased ancestor’s soul would return during the Obon season. As a tribute, the Japanese would often light up candles and send off lanterns down a river during what is known as Toro Nagashi, or “floating of the lanterns" to signify the return of ancestral spirits.

2. What is the traditional history and origin of Obon?

Obon derives from the Sanskrit word “Ullambana-a,” which is part of the Ullambana sutra. The history follows the story of Buddha’s disciple who began having disturbing visions of his deceased mother. To alleviate his mother’s suffering, the disciple sought Buddha’s help, who in turn, told the individual to perform a special offering for Buddhist monks during the fifteenth day of July. Upon following Buddha’s instructions, his mother was relieved from her suffering. And as a result, the disciple began to perform a joyous dance, now known as the Bon Odori dance. 

3. How is Obon celebrated in America?

Mostly, with lots of skilled drummers and dancers adorned in ornate yukata and kimono-style attire. Oftentimes, there's an array of fruit offerings and tea demonstrations. Sometimes you'll see a food bazaar situated in open, communal spaces like temples, streets and parks. Obon attracts different audiences and is celebrated with a contemporary spin-off. Bingo, live music, arts and crafts for kids, and delicious dishes like BBQ chicken teriyaki and snow cones are just a few of the refreshing elements that continue to attract dozens of Angelenos.

Obon can last from one to three days. To preserve traditional values, garlands and offerings are placed at the grave site of ancestors. During the evening, hundreds of bon chochin lanterns are hung outdoors, and some are even attached with tags inscribed with the names of the recently deceased.

4. What is a Bon Odori?

One of the main highlights of Obon is a special folk dance known as the Bon Odori, often practiced weeks and months in advance leading up to the festival. Anyone including the young and old can join in and dance to the beat of the Taiko drum. Expect fast-paced musical rhythms underneath hundreds of colorful lanterns.

Check out this video of Bon Odori performed in West Los Angeles.

5. Where can I find upcoming Obon Festivals in the area?