One Sunday evening every summer, members of the Buddhist Church of Lodi dress in traditional clothing and gather outside of the church building. They dip and raise fans high, sway and slowly turn as they gracefully dance in a large circle — the Obon Odori.
The Japanese Buddhist tradition has been part of life in Japan for more than 500 years. In Lodi, the Obon Odori has been danced each summer since the church was founded 90 years ago, except for a brief hiatus during World War II.
Today, it’s the final act of a weekend-long festival that includes music, taiko drumming, dance performances, children’s games, Bingo, a raffle, martial arts demonstrations, craft sales and, of course, delicious food like chicken teriyaki, sushi, udon, burgers, snow cones and more.
It’s a smaller festival than it was 40 years ago, but Lodi’s Buddhist community still turns out for Obon.
“It’s a time to get back to your roots,” church member Patti Kaida said.
The Obon Bazaar is not just for Buddhists. Church members welcome anyone who wants to come, regardless of their background. Lodi residents are even invited to come out for the last two dance rehearsals this coming week, if they’d like to learn the steps for the Obon Odori dance that will be held on June 30.
The origins of Obon
Obon is both a festival and a time for families to honor their lost loved ones and ancestors.
That purpose — and the Obon Odori dance — stretch back to a story of a devout Buddhist monk whose mother passed away.
The monk learned that his mother had been trapped in one of the hells, and turned to the Buddha to learn how he could free her. He was told to practice compassion and give offerings to a group of monks who had just finished a retreat. He did this, and his mother was freed, causing him to dance with joy.
As Obon spread throughout Japan, each region developed its own dances and music.
Today, the festival is held all over Japan and all over the world wherever there are Buddhist communities with their roots in Japan. Notable festivals are held in Argentina, Brazil and Malaysia as well as the U.S. and Canada.
In Japan, the starting date changes from region to region, because each area adopted the Gregorian calendar at different times.
In California, Obon festivals are held at Buddhist churches up and down the state. Lodi’s will be the last weekend in June; Stockton’s will be the first weekend in August. Sacramento splits their festivities, holding the Obon Odori dance on July 13 and a cultural festival in August. The Buddhist Church of Florin, also in Sacramento, celebrates on July 20.
Here, the different start dates are deliberate. It lets people celebrate Obon at their own church, then visit far-flung family members or friends for their festival.
“It’s a homecoming for a lot of sanseis,” said Kaida, using the term for third-generation Japanese-Americans.
Her daughter’s family comes to Lodi each year from Auburn. They’re not the only visitors who return to Lodi for the event.
“The night of Obon, a lot of people come out,” dance instructor Annie Tanimoto said.
The Japanese-American community in Lodi stretches back to the 1880s, when a group of Japanese workers came to the area to work in local orchards and vineyards.
Just a few years later, in 1899, two Buddhist ministers from Japan traveled to San Francisco to look into establishing what would become the Buddhist Churches of America. The Sacramento church was formed that year, with a Stockton congregation following in 1907.
In 1929, Lodi members of the Stockton Buddhist Church gathered together and decided to found their own church. They officially separated in April of that year, and by June had raised enough money to purchase and remodel an old planing mill.
The Obon Bazaar wasn’t part of church life in those early days — at least, not the “bazaar” part. But church members did dance the Obon Odori.
“The dancing has gone on since the beginning,” Kaida said.
The early Lodi Buddhist Church raised money through social clubs, donations and benefit movies.
But by the 1950s, the Obon Bazaar had become one of the church’s major fundraiser events. Church members sold sushi and chicken teriyaki at first, and the menu has expanded over the years.
The festival stopped in the 1940s, when Lodi’s entire Japanese-American community was forcibly removed and sent to internment camps. To protect the church, members who were U.S. citizens joined the board, and they asked Lodi Mayor George Steele to watch over the church property as an advisor.
When the camps were closed, those who returned to Lodi stayed at the Japanese Hall while they resettled. Soon, they restarted the festival.
The Obon Bazaar’s heyday was from the mid-1950s until about 1980, church president Fred Nagata said.
“We had events in parking lot and the whole event was spread out more,” he said.
Annie Tanimoto has been teaching the dances for the Obon Odori since she was 16, first as an assistant teacher. She became the head teacher at 22, and has held that role for more than six decades.
“I enjoy it,” she said.
It wasn’t exactly something she’d planned. When she was 5 or 6, her sister — who was several years older — learned the dances, so Tanimoto wanted to, too.
“When you’re small, you want to follow your sister around,” she said, laughing.
It turned into a lifelong passion, and Tanimoto was a classical dance instructor as well.
Back then, the congregation was much larger, which made set-up easier. The Buddhist Church of Lodi has shrunk over the years as young people move away. And today, when many members of the Japanese-American community are the third, fourth or fifth generation born in the U.S., the church’s activities aren’t as central to life as they were for the families — mainly immigrants or the children of immigrants — who built the church 90 years ago.
“They don’t need the church like we used to,” Kaida said.
Plus, Tanimoto added, kids are more into sports than learning traditional dance nowadays.
But on Wednesday evening, a group of all ages was still in the church courtyard, performing the steps to a folk dance as Tanimoto called them out. Several were visitors who had come out to learn, even though they weren’t members of the Lodi church.
Today, the dancers are often joined by community members in everyday clothing, so men and women in traditional clothing and T-shirts and shorts dance side by side. In earlier days, everyone dressed up for the dance.
Kaida’s grandmother kept kimonos in a trunk, and she and her female cousins all chose one.
Then, they went out to a woman in Acampo who was a “dresser” — someone who could take a too-large kimono and fold and blouse and bunch it in such a way that it looked tailored for the wearer, without sewing a single stitch. All of the “alterations” to the slippery silk garment were tucked under the wide sash worn with the kimono.
“The obi sash had to be tied extremely tight so it wouldn’t slide loose before or during the Obon dancing,” Kaida said. “It felt hard to breathe. Thank goodness it was only for one night.”
She and her cousins would join the three rings of dancers, all prepared by different “dressers” in the Lodi area.
The festival lasted longer then, too. Today, the dancing wraps up around 9 p.m. Sunday, and the festival closes earlier on Saturday.
“In days past we played till 10 p.m. and now we close after the dinner hours,” Nagata said. “I long for the days when we can be with friends till the late hours having a great time.”
While the festival has shrunk a little in recent years, it still draws people from all over Lodi to visit for the weekend.
The Obon Bazaar today
This year’s festival will feature performances, exhibits, food, games and more, with a different entertainment schedule each day.
Saturday’s spotlight will be on ukulele music, performances of Japanese folk dances and music as well as classical dance, and hula. On Sunday, a day of fun and games will end with a taiko drum performance at 6 p.m., followed by the Obon Odori outside the church.
The festival runs on the efforts of volunteers — not just to dance, but to cook, man the booths, and otherwise help out throughout the weekend.
Volunteers also build the wooden stage for the musicians that will serve as the center of the Obon Odori dance. They’ll begin building on Thursday.
“They have to build all of the booths from scratch,” Kaida said.
Many of the volunteers are church members, but now they’re joined by non-member friends and students earning community service credits.
The festival’s organizers have put the word out all over the region, and they’re hoping to see plenty of visitors from Lodi and beyond.
“One thing that has not changed over the years is our enthusiasm in keeping our traditions on going,” Nagata said.