Unless you grew up in a Japanese or Japanese-American household, or knew someone who did, the only experience you may have had of Obon was Daniel-san's final fight scene in The Karate Kid, Part 2.
Often called the Japanese Day of the Dead, Obon is an annual summertime celebration that honors loved ones who have passed away. It comes from the story of Mokuren, a disciple of Buddha, who — while in meditation — saw his mother suffering. Buddha advised Mokuren to make offerings to the monks; upon doing so, he saw his mother's freedom and danced for joy. This dance is called Bon Odori, and it's at the center of Obon celebrations. Participants line up in concentric circles around a wooden platform called the yagura, the bandstand for the musicians. As the music begins, the dances proceed in a counter-clockwise direction.
Also at the center of Obon celebrations is the food — and there's a lot of it. Obon festivals offer a large variety of uber-comfort food: Japanese, Japanese-American and Hawaiian dishes and treats. Many non-traditional dishes have also been introduced over the years, generating waiting lines reminiscent of the Kogi truck's first year on the streets.
You will find most of the mainstays, such as chicken and beef teriyaki (most offer their own homemade secret teriyaki sauce), chili dogs, chili rice, curry rice, sushi, Spam musubi (yes, Spam sushi), tamales, tacos, chashu bao (Chinese barbecued pork buns), mochi and snow cones at most Obon festivals.
Ranging from $2-$7 per plate, you can build your own festive feast of savories and sweets. In addition to the "regular menu," a few temples offer stand-out dishes that have fans coming back for more year after year. Look below for a more detailed list of these temples and their special offerings.
At each unique Obon festival, not only will you experience Bon Odori and all the food, but some temples also have taiko drumming performances and ikebana flower arrangement exhibits. Some even have raffles and carnival games. So, don't be surprised if you return home with a few containers of teriyaki, sushi, mochi and maybe a fifty-pound bag of short grain rice.
WHEN: Saturday, July 5, 5:30 p.m. Bon Odori begins at 7 p.m.
WHERE: Senshin Buddhist Temple
1311 W. 37th St. Los Angeles; (323) 731-4617
WHAT TO EAT: Oden
Usually enjoyed during the winter months, this soy-based stew made with hard-boiled eggs, kamaboko (fish cakes), konnyaku (a gelatinous cake made from yams), and daikon radish is a summer favorite at Senshin. Served with rice and pickled cucumber tsukemono, this popular dish is guaranteed to sell out, so get there early. In addition to being a few blocks from USC, Senshin is home to the very first Japanese-American taiko drumming groups, Kinnara Taiko. Stick around after the Bon Odori dancing for a raffle drawing, lighting of memorial lamps, taiko performance and a bowl of cold somen noodles.
WHEN: Saturday, July 12, 3 p.m. Bon Odori begins at 7 p.m.; Sunday, July 13, 3 p.m. Bon Odori begins at 6:30 p.m.
WHERE: Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple
815 E. 1st St. Los Angeles; (213) 680-9130
WHAT TO EAT: Dango with blueberry sauce.
Walking distance from the Metro gold line stop in Little Tokyo, Nishi Hongwanji is excited to introduce their newest offering at this year's Obon: dango with blueberry sauce. Dango is an Okinawan-style fried doughnut, served with a homemade blueberry sauce. Think funnel cake in the shape of a golf ball and add blueberries and sugar. What's not to love?
WHEN: Saturday, July 19 and Sunday, July 20, 4 p.m. Bon Odori begins at 6:30 p.m.
WHERE: Pasadena Buddhist Temple
1993 Glen Avenue, Pasadena; (626) 798-4781
WHAT TO EAT: Unagi donburi (sea eel rice bowl), poke (seasoned tuna sashimi) and peanut butter cup mochi (in very limited quantities).
In addition to offering a large menu of mainstay dishes, with home-made sauces, Pasadena Buddhist Temple is also the only temple this Obon season that features unagi donburi, poke and peanut butter cup mochi. Their small-batch mochi sells out quickly every year, so get there early. Fans of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups will not be disappointed.
WHEN: Saturday, July 19, 3 p.m. Bon Odori begins at 6:30 p.m.; Sunday, July 20, 1 p.m. Bon Odori begins at 6:30 p.m.
WHERE: Venice Hongwanji Buddhist Temple
12371 Braddock Drive, Culver City; (310) 391-4351.
WHAT TO EAT: Fried wontons.
Venice Hongwanji is not actually in Venice, but nestled in a cozy residential area in Culver City, near Playa Vista. Offering a variety of mainstay dishes, locals and temple members come back year after year for their crispy fried wontons, made with a blend of beef, pork and vegetables and served with a sweet sauce.
WHEN: Saturday, July 26 and Sunday, July 27, 12 p.m. Bon Odori begins at 6:30 p.m.
WHERE: Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple
505 E. 3rd St. Los Angeles; (213) 626-4200.
WHAT TO EAT: Dango dogs, Oreo dango, Maui Natural Ice Truck.
Bringing together the multi-ethnic flavors of Los Angeles, the members of Higashi Honganji offer tamales, tacos and burgers, in addition to their popular mainstay items. Known for their dango dogs and Oreo dango, which are hot dogs and Oreos, covered and deep-fried in a sweet funnel cake-like batter, respectively. Higashi Honganji is the only temple that serves these treats. This year, they also welcome the Maui Natural Ice Truck, featuring Hawaiian-inspired shave ice.
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WHEN: Saturday, July 26, 4 p.m. Bon Odori begins at 6:30 p.m. Sunday, July 27, 3 p.m. Bon Odori begins at 6:30 p.m.
WHERE: West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple
2003 Corinth Avenue, West Los Angeles; (310) 477-7274
WHAT TO EAT: Fried wontons, blueberry and chocolate imagawayaki and udon.
Returning this year to the West Los Angeles Obon are the hugely popular fried wontons, as well as the blueberry or chocolate-filled imagawayaki, a dessert sandwich made of pancake batter usually filled with adzuki bean paste. Their udon booth usually has a long line, as the broth has been called legendary by some of their fans and temple members. This broth, called kakejiru, is created by Aki Restaurant chef and owner, Sam Hada. The West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple is just few blocks away from your favorite shops on Sawtelle Blvd., so not only can you get your Bon Odori on in the closed-off streets of West L.A., you can also get special sweets and savories only offered once a year. Then head to Giant Robot and get an almond latte at Balconi Coffee Company.
WHEN: Saturday, August 2, 3 p.m. Bon Odori begins at 6 p.m. Sunday, August 3, 2 p.m. Bon Odori begins at 6 p.m.
WHERE: Gardena Buddhist Church
1517 W 166th St., Gardena; (310) 327-9400
WHAT TO EAT: Teriyaki and Okinawa dango
Gardena's comfort mainstay dishes include teriyaki beef and chicken, udon, tamales. corn, chili rice and sushi. Don't expect Yoshinoya in their teriyaki; this is home-made stuff. Fans of Gardena's Obon love the teriyaki here and even buy extra to freeze for a special occasion. Their Okinawan dango, called sata andagi in the Okinawan dialect, is like a doughnut hole and, unsurprisingly, is a crowd favorite. How do you not love deep-fried flour and sugar?