SLO County Buddhists honor ancestors, celebrate culture at Obon Festival

Buddhists celebrate with Obon Festival in Arroyo Grande

The Rev. Naomi Nakano explains the significance of Obon, a Buddhist holiday that honors believers' ancestors.
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The Rev. Naomi Nakano explains the significance of Obon, a Buddhist holiday that honors believers' ancestors.

Sushi, kimonos, choreographed sword routines and dancing — lots of dancing — brought Buddhist culture to life Saturday in the South County.

The San Luis Obispo Buddhist Temple hosted its annual Obon Festival at St. Patrick Catholic School in Arroyo Grande, creating a chance for many visitors to take in music and demonstrations while enjoying a plate of tempura and a cold bottle of Sapporo.

But for temple members and area Japanese-Americans, the festival allowed them to share centuries-old traditions and to celebrate their ancestors.

Buddhists make up 0.7 percent of all religious adherents in the United States, according to the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Study. California, where 2 percent of all believers are Buddhists, has the second-largest population in the country behind Hawaii, where 8 percent of adherents practice the religion.

The Rev. Naomi Nakano, who’s presided over the temple for six years, said Obon is primarily celebrated in Japan during the summer and allows believers to give thanks to relatives and ancestors for their support and guidance.

“For us, it’s really looking at what did they give to us while they were alive,” Nakano said. “This is our way of showing gratitude.”

It’s an expression of our Buddhist values.

Barbara Finn

A dance, the Bon Odori, is a big part of the festival. Nakano said dancers perform “without ego” for their ancestors.

“It’s a dance of joy for them,” she said. “It’s to dance without worrying about what we look like.”

Nakano said the temple participated in a big Bon Odori with other groups earlier in the year, but this festival allows the community to share Buddhist and Japanese traditions with others.

Donna Sato and Barbara Finn, both temple members who helped prepare for the festivities in the kitchen, said they’d been taking part in Obon since they were children.

“When I was growing up, this is what my parents did,” Sato said.

“It’s an expression of our Buddhist values,” Finn said.

Temple member Janis Eto said Obon also allows the older generation to pass their traditions down.

“It’s a time for our families to come together,” she said.

Kristin Halter said she and her husband, Charles Okui, who are both temple members, have brought their 4-year-old son, Jack, to the festival every year since his birth.

While Okui helped with the festivities, Halter and Jack watched a performance by Ichimi Daiko drummers. Halter said she thinks it’s important for her son — who eagerly tried out the drums when invited — to learn about his family’s background.

“We just love to come and support Japanese culture,” she said.

Lindsey Holden: 805-781-7939, @lindseyholden27