Mid-July - early August is the Obon season in Los Angeles. It is time to get out your hakama, yukata and happi and go do some dancing. Obon is a celebration to honor your ancestors. When you read the story of the origins of the festival, you see that it is really about mother love on a vast scale. And freedom. When you or someone you are close to is set free, you might very well be inclined to dance as did Mokuren, when his mother was set free from the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts. Thus rose the Bon Odori. This tradition of celebration goes back several centuries.
The west coast has a very large Japanese American population. The two dominant ethnicities of the first neighborhood of my childhood was African American and Japanese American. I was often attempting an exchange between what was in their lunch boxes with what was in mine. The second neighborhood of my childhood was more mixed, with Chinese, Korean, and Mexican Americans in large numbers. That meant more tasty treats.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch…
With such a large Japanese American community here, temples and cultural centers scattered hither and yon, there are lots of Obon celebrations going on throughout the city and up and down the state. I started going to them in 2012, since I knew I’d be headed to Japan the next year. I figured an Obon would give me some more cultural awareness.
In realize now that I attended them much earlier, because in downtown Los Angeles they incorporate their Obon into the larger Nisei Week celebrations. When I was youngster and a member of the L.A.P.D. Junior Band, we marched in the Nisei Week Parade. Yeah, the cops had a junior band and I was part of it. A lot of cats (for most of its history, it was an all-boys band) were part of it. Here is all I could find on the web about it. Even though it is a bulletin board, it is worth reading. The postings give you a sense of what was going on in Los Angeles in those days. The band was an integrated ensemble, but when I was in it, it was primarily African American, so although there was a deep camaraderie, there were also some tensions. The band reflected what was going on in the wider culture. For those interested in such things, it also gives some insight into marching band vs corps culture.
The reason I remember that Nisei Week Parade is that people were throwing firecrackers. No big deal, they were small firecrackers and they weren’t really throwing them at us, just a celebration thing. I heard an especially big "Crack!" and turned in that direction. Next to me was Carl Simpson, with a stunned expression, pulling back from the mouthpiece on his sousaphone. Smoke started curling out of it. Someone had managed to get one of those firecrackers into the bell of his horn. Carl didn’t think it was as funny as I did.
Meanwhile, here is what has been going on at the ranch…
Once I attended my first Obon and talked to a few folks (people are very friendly at Obons), I had to check out some of the others. This was not just because I was into the people watching, taiko drumming and overall good vibe, but they also have food stands. Of course, there is plenty of Japanese food, but what got me was the chili rice. Chili over rice is no big deal, been around for a long time. We know how inexplicably crazy people can get over chili recipes. Hell, you'd think it was something to be proud of. This plain ole simple chili (often straight out of a can), ladled over a mound of rice, purchased at some kind of festive event creates some kind of resonance in me. I have yet to figure out why this is. I just know it goes way back, most probably to my church days. Now, I have no problem calling up very clear visions of eating chili Fritos (chili pie) from my youth. The popular spot across from Locke High School was the place to go only because you could get some chili Fritos. Go figure. I have been to only one Obon that has not had a vender selling chili rice. That was this year. When I went in 2012, they had a booth. It was run by a gang of enthusiastic old guys. Before I purchased, I asked if they made the chili themselves. They got real embarrassed, lowed their heads, then told me that the guy who makes the chili got sick, so they were using a canned product. That was fine with me. In my world, chili rice is about canned chili.
These photos are from various Obon celebrations around Los Angeles in 2012 and 2014. The map follows a light rail and walking tour on July 13, that included two Obon festivals happening across the street from each other and dinner at Birrieria de Don Boni. Here’s the address, because the place has changed names a time or two, though it is the same family running things: 1845 E. 1st Street, L. A., 90033. If you like goat, this is one of the places to go. The day turned out to be a little uncomfortable since I had to have the chili rice at both Obons, then eat enough of the goat not to insult the cook.
Okay. So, I know you are sitting there wondering if I do any of the dances at these celebrations? The answer, as you might well have guessed, is no. Obon dancing is line dancing, in a circle. Some of them look pretty simple, others seem to me insanely difficult. The general attitude is, nobody cares how you look or how well you do, join the circle and dance. Get behind someone who knows what they are doing and follow along. They are all in a very moderate tempo, so even old cats like me can keep up. I am thinking that I’ve gone to enough of these events now that it is time to be less of a spectator, to join in and be part of the party in a bigger way. If I can keep my courage up, next season I am going to go to some of the dance practice sessions. I figure if I learn three or four dances, I can struggle along with the ones I don’t know or just fall out of line. But it is time to get with it. Time to get down with the Bon Odori and wear some of the clothes I bought in Japan.
P.S. Even though I was in Japan during the Bon season, I didn’t catch any of the festivals. In fact, I was in danger of not catching any festival of any kind. I kept just missing them like I kept just missing the cherry blossoms. I’d get to a town too late or leave too early. The only one I caught was the Yosakoi Soran Festival in Sapporo, so I made sure to take in as much of it as I could.
|Off to get some chili rice and some goat.
|The guys at the San Fernando Valley Hongwanji Buddhist Temple. They had to resort to canned chili this year (2012).
|I opted for the chili dog rather than chili rice. One doesn't want to be too dogmatic.
|The Nishi Hongwanji Los Angeles Betsuin.
|They were a little light on the chili.
|This is one of the largest of the L.A. Obons.
|They are a party-hardy crowd.
|Looking across the tracks toward the west. The dancing at all the Obons start early evening and are finished by sunset.
|This is at the Pasadena Buddhist Temple, the one closest to me. 2012.
|I opted for the dog.
|Pasadena gets a surprisingly big crowd.
|Taiko performances are a mainstay at the L.A. Obons.
|Rev. Tom, gets down.
|Now we at Gardena Buddhist Church. 2012.
|They cut their dogs here. No buns.
|Here the performances and dancing happens on the street.
|It is a different feel with the celebration happening with the neighbors sitting in their front yards. Everyone has to make efforts to maintain good relations.
|Still in Gardena. Most of these celebrations are two-day affairs. Sometimes I go both days, as happened here...
|...which is why I went for the Spam musubi.
|The last Bon Odori in Los Angeles is in Little Tokyo as the culmination of Nisei Week.
|Nisei Week is when you see the most costumes.
|In 2013, I left the country too soon to attend most of the Bon Odoris, but in West Covina they had a Cherry Blossom Festival.
|This is the West Covina chili crew.
|I did get back in town in 2013 to attend the Gardena Obon. This guy stole the show with his authentic costume.
|We are back in the San Fernando Valley again, but in 2014. This year the chili rice guys didn't make it. I hope everything is okay. I opted for deep fried Oreos. They are not chili rice, but they are pretty darn good. They are a funny food.
|If I don't see one or both of these guys at an Obon, I start to wonder if I am in the right place.
|In fact, I see a lot of the same faces from location to location. That is one of the reasons I will eventually have to dance. I don't want to risk being viewed as an interloper.
|This is at the Zenshuji Soto Temple in downtown Los Angeles. 2014 is the first year I've attended their Obon. They are across the street and a little west of the LA Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple. They have their celebrations on the same days to create a synergy.
|The Zenshuji folks make their own chili. Good job!
|The Zenshuji crew.
|The chili from across the street at LA Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple,
|The Little Tokyo Metro stop.
|Pasadena in 2014.
|I don't usually go for jalapenos, but I needed a little spark.
|Announcing the start of a taiko performance.
|Members of these taiko groups cross the generations.
|For some reason the Pasadena event is more brightly colored.
|A goat shank at the birrieria.
|The mixed plate. All they serve here is roast goat. The only vegetables are the onions and cilantro you see in the earlier photo.
|Just for the hell of it, here is a photo of a goat shank I cooked.
|A shot of a train heading for the Sierra Madre Station where I alight. This was shot from the L.A. State Historic Park.