Times Past

Japanese Buddhist Obon Festival has a rich tradition in SLO County

Obon Dance at the SLO Veteran’s Center in 1981.
Obon Dance at the SLO Veteran’s Center in 1981.

In the 1930s, most of the Japanese American community in San Luis Obispo County worked in the fields all day.

So the Obon Festival, a Japanese Buddhist custom honoring the spirits of one’s ancestors in early August, had to be held at night at the temple on French Road, now Madonna Road. The building had been purchased from Mission Church in 1927 and moved to the site.

Members arranged their cars in a large circle, with their headlights aimed on the beautiful kimono clad dancers celebrating Obon. The dance recalls Mogallana, a disciple of Buddha, who danced for joy. He was relieving his deceased mother’s suffering in the realm of hungry ghosts through meditation. A platform was built for musicians on the tennis court.

“The first Obon Festival that I remember,” said Alan Eto, “was when I was 5 or 6, circa 1953. My grandparents and mother would drive in the family car from the Eto Ranch in Los Osos. My dad and I would follow in the old Chevy truck.

“The ceremony was a bit somber. The old temple had a high ceiling but was dimly lit.”

Besides, only one in 10 Japanese Americans had been able to return to the country after Executive Order 9066 forced all Japanese from this county in early 1942, following the bombing at Pearl Harbor.

There weren’t any elaborate silk kimonos in 1953. Many pre-war elegant, multilayered silk kimonos had been lost during the relocation. Younger girls might wear a yukata, a casual summer kimono made of unlined cotton.

Eto’s sister, Lois, didn’t get her first kimono until her parents took her to Japan in 1957.

In 1960, what is now Caltrans announced plans to build an overpass at Highway 101 and Madonna Road. The overpass ran right through the temple property, so it was relocated to Ontario Road near Avila Hot Springs in 1961, overlooking a rustic, tree-filled valley.

In 1957, the temple opened its increasingly popular and, now all-day, festivities to the community at large.

“We couldn’t accommodate so many visitors,” Janis Eto said, “without the assistance of so many friends as well as members with the painstaking preparations for sushi, barbeque, cultural exhibits, demonstrations and dancing.”

I have wonderful memories of working alongside Alan Eto’s father, Masaji Eto, at the 1982 Obon Festival when it was held at the SLO Veterans Hall. I loved watching the women prepare sushi. The colorful, cold rice was shaped in small cakes filed with vegetables, fruit, egg and seafood.

From noon to 8 p.m. Saturday, the SLO Buddhist Temple, which recently celebrated its 90th anniversary, will host the Obon Festival at St. Patrick’s Catholic School, 900 West Branch St., Arroyo Grande. You can enjoy Taiko Japanese Drum Dances, Kendo, a martial art with bamboo swords and protective armor, bonsai demonstrations, sushi, teriyaki chicken, tempura and a cold Sapporo beer or sake.

“Square meat” sushi will be featured. It’s made from Spam, a taste acquired in the World War II relocation camps. Janis Eto recently prepared “square meat” for the students at Hawthorne School after they read about it in Lois Sepahban’s novel, “Paper Wishes,” and loved the delicious sushi.

The displays and entertainment are free and open to the public.

From noon to 4 p.m., Naomi Eto Shibata Denny will sign copies of “Bend with the Wind,” a book about her mother, Grace Eto Shibata, who grew up on the Eto Ranch until her life was disrupted by the war. Liz and I will also sign copies of “War Comes to the Middle Kingdom.”

Copies of “Bend with the Wind” and other local histories will be available through the auspices of the County History Center.

This column is by Liz and Dan Krieger. Liz is a retired SLO childrens’ librarian. Dan is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.

Obon Festival Events

Saturday, St. Patrick’s Catholic, Arroyo Grande

Noon to 12:30 p.m. Ichimi (Taiko) Hands on Demo

1-1:30 p.m. Iaido sword and Kendo Demonstration

2-2:30 p.m. Judo Demonstration

2-3 p.m. Bonsai Demonstration

2:45-3:15 p.m. Daito Ryu Aiki Jujitsu martial art demonstration

3:45-4:30 p.m. Hula/Ukulele, Hoapili Pomaikai Performance

4:45-5:30 p.m. Ichimi Daiko (Taiko performance)

6:00-7:15 p.m. Obon Odori dancing begins on Outside Stage Arena