Obon is the Japanese Buddhist tradition to honor the spirits of one's ancestors, but to Nikkei people living in the United States, Obon Season has become much more than a religious practice exclusive to Nikkei Buddhists. Many of us, including non-Buddhists like myself, count the Obon Season as a rare time to wholey practice our Nikkeiness. We wear colorful yukata or hapi coats representing our local community, enjoy fresh off the grill chicken teriyaki, and dance with our loved ones to the nostalgic sounds of traditional (and modern) Japanese-language obon music.
These moments of fully embodying our Nikkeiness are few and far between during the rest of the year, but occurs weekly around the United States during the summer months. So I was asked by the Yo Magazine team to crowd-source a list of what different obon festivals are known for around the country.
As I began reaching out to colleagues, it became clear that there was a distinct divide between obons that are practiced in areas of high Nikkei density and areas in low Nikkei density. In areas like Los Angeles County or the San Francisco Bay Area, Nikkei are easily able to identify which temples have specific foods, what live bands to expect every year, and special traditions that make each obon stand out. However, in many other cities, their obon is the only one in that geographic region, making the question of what each obon is known for more abstract and rooted in scarcity rather than density. Obons in areas such as Seabrook, NJ; Seattle, WA; Salt Lake City, UT, etc; become de facto pilgrimages for the community to travel from near and far for one weekend of food, dancing, and community. For fun, I also reached out to a friend in Japan to see how Japanese American obon practices vary from Japan’s obon practices as well!
The below crowd-sourced list is far from exhaustive and everything listed here has come from memories I and other community members have from participating in these obon festivals. Memories may have faded and the traditions may have changed over the years, but what stood out to me is what a community effort obon is regardless of where it's held. While most, if not all, of the obons are cancelled in the United States, I hope that this list brings back nostalgic memories of obons you’ve attended and gets you excited for a new tradition this year: virtual obon!
Anaheim, CA - OCBC
Orange County Buddhist Church is known for their delicious Dango Dogs, which is a corn dogs dipped in the Okinawa dango batter and a crowd favorite frog launcher game. This game is particularly nostalgic because OCBC's unofficial mascot is Freddy the Frog.
Berekley has a couple food items that they're known for including steaks to order instead of chicken and Hawaiian Kailua Pork Nachos
What's really unique about this obon is that it happens in the parking lot of Mitsuwa Marketplace. This is also the only Japanese supermarket in the Chicagoland area, making it a hub for the entire community regardless of generation or religion. Like many of the other obon, this obon has a cultural showcase preceeding the dancing that included Eisa (Okinawan drumming), Karate, and Taiko performances.There would also be games like ring toss and scooping up goldfish for children. Annually there would be food stands that were set up outside in addition to the food offered within the grocery store! After the cultural performances, there would be bon odori dancing in the parking lot.
The Fresno Betsuin has the big obon that practices similar to those in Los Angeles and the Bay Area and then the smaller Central Valley towns also have their own obon. Fresno’s has all the regular obon food and most in the area have live taiko. A noteable stand out is that Reedly’s obon is known for its giant mochi ice cream.
Also one of the largest obons in the area with around 1,000 dancers alone. One of their specialty items is their Sata Andagi (Okinawan doughnut) and Corn!
Higashi, Little Tokyo
Higashi's obon was known for actor Rodney Kageyama hosting before he passed away in 2018. The dances are different than some of the other obon in the area and the emcees allow dancers to call out the songs they want to dance to!
Honokaa Jodo Mission, Hawai'i
This rural obon in the middle of a cane field is small in comparison to many of the others in Honolulu, but attracts around 100 people each year. This obon is known for having a giant potluck as there are no concessions. Everyone brings their prepared food item to the Dining Hall before going to dance.
In Japan, obon isn't practiced like it is in theUnited States. There is one week of obon and during August and every streetcorner has something going on. During that week you will often hear obon musicand taiko drumming no matter where you are because there are so many obonfestivals happening. Folks in Japan also aren't practing cultural traditionsthe way Japanese Americans do and focus on paying respects to the ancestorsduring the day and attending their local obon festival in the evening.
Mountain View, CA
One of the unique items Mountain View is known for is having Pull Tabs (like lottery scratch offs) and is one of the few obon in the Bay Area to still have them! They also offer Hawaiian style obon dancing on Saturdays.
Nishi Hongwanji, Little Tokyo
Nishi is known for many things but particularly the dancing and live performances such as Enka or the band from Fandangobon. Kokoro, an Asian American cover band in Los Angeles, also often performs at the end of the evening so there is line dancing in addition to bon odori dancing. This is also one of the larger obons in the area and Bingo is a big hit with the community.
Palo Alto Buddhist Temple
This obon is known for their delicious ramen and short ribs along with having a bonsai booth each year!
The BBQ Corn booth for the Friendship youth exchange program between Pasadena and Mishima! There is fresh sweet corn and its placed straight onto the BBQ. While being a smaller obon, what is especially cool is that the guests have been increasingly diverse as friends and families from the entire Pasadena community come together.
Salt Lake City, UT
The Obon is held on the street that once was a vibrant Japantown. Now all that's left is a Japanese Christian Church and the Buddhist Temple The dancing, food, and the taiko drum performance has been the traditional attraction to the citizens in the area, and the gym has a cultural display of the community’s history and Topaz Concentration Camp. Tea ceremonies are performed through out the day and Mochi Tsuki is demonstrated.
San Diego, Balboa Park
Every year they walk out to the same song, Kyo Mo Egao De Konnichiwa, and have special ribbon poles that are used specifically for this dance. Of coruse what's also notable is that it happens in Spreckle's Organ Pavillion!
San Francisco, CA
At San Francisco's obon, dancing happens on a hill making this extremely unique from the other obons listed. Each year folks jockey for the best spot which some have noted is in the warm sun going downhill.
San Jose, CA
This is one of the largest obon in the country with around 1,500 people there on Saturday night, and in order to make it all happen the Japantown community really comes together. In addition to its size, San Jose's obon is also known for the taiko. Not only does San Jose Taiko perform, but there are other professional taiko groups and college taiko groups that perform as well. San Jose's obon is also known for their beer garden and strawberry shortcake made by Aki's Bakery.
This obon is known for continuing the tradition of having $1 snow cones and also one of the last in the Bay Area to have raw oysters and sushi. They are also known for their miso yaki, yakisoba, and burgers.
This obon is rooted in Seabrook's WWII history. 3,000 Japanese American settled in Seabrook during WWII to work at Seabrook Farms and the area became a pseudo Japantown. Due to this history, many people will travel to Seabrook's obon from all over the country as a pilgrimage of sorts and a once vibrant Japanese American community is revitalized for a weekend. While the crowd varies from year to year, under normal circumstances folks will travel from the Washington, DC area, New England, Pacific Northwest and California will attend. Typically this obon attracts around 300-500 people.
Seattle's obon is known for their beer garden and yakionigiri, but more importantly the community effort it takes to put together their intergenerational event. Seattle's Obon is welcoming and brings together folks who've been in community forever and folks who have never been to a Nikkei event, all trying to follow the elders leading the dances.
This is the only obon in the region with a diverse group of attendees including Japanese Americans from the mainland and Hawaii, expats, and folks who formerly resided in Japan. A noteable difference is that there's usually a lesson at the beginning of each dance so everyone can participate. This obon is also known for having excellent Taiko performances.
Vista Buddhist Temple, Vista, CA
Vista has demonstrations, usually a nursery that sells plants there, and fruit/vegetable seller that community members enjoy buying produce from each year
Zenshuji, Little Tokyo
The food! This obon occurs on the same weekend of Nishi's obon and is across the street. Many community members begin their day at Zenshuji to eat and then head to Nishi to dance. Zenshuji has some specialty food items such as their wontons and ikayaki that aren't found at many other obon.