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Buddhist Church Will Host Obon Festival : Taste of Japanese Life in Celebration Honoring the Dead


Although Kimiko and Keith Endo live in Agoura, their mother, Kathy Endo, was more than happy to take them to West Los Angeles twice a week to acquaint them with Japanese culture.

Kimiko and Keith are part of a Taiko drum group at the West Los Angeles Buddhist Church.

"There aren't many Japanese living in our area," said their mother. "We wanted our children to have some sort of their heritage. So we travel. This church has a good program for kids."

The children, while glad to be involved in Japanese tradition, have a more visceral reaction to the drum playing.

"It's fun," said Keith, 12. "There's a lot of movement. It takes a lot of energy."

Kimiko, his 14-year-old sister, added: "After a good practice, everybody is all sweaty."

The public can watch the 12-member Taiko drum team perform this weekend at the church as part of the annual Obon festival, which is held to honor the dead. In Japan, Obon is second only to New Year's as the most celebrated holiday.

The paved lot behind the church will be transformed into a traditional, Japanese carnival, replete with Japanese food, cultural exhibits and kimono-clad dancers.

There will be a bonsai exhibit, flower arrangements and traditional brush-and-ink paintings. Food will include thick, chewy udon noodles in clear broth, an assortment of sushi and fluffy, shaved-ice topped with sweetened azuki beans. Revelers can also try several carnival games.

But the main focus of the festival is the ondo, a kind of Japanese jig performed in a slow-moving circle centered on a yagura , or drum tower. In the tower, a drummer will accompany recorded folk songs from various regions of Japan with the deep rumble of a large Taiko drum.

"The dances are very simple," said Grace Matsumoto, an ondo teacher and church member. "They're geared toward the public so anyone can just get up and join in. Sometimes we pull people off the street. We try to get everybody involved."

Each song has its own set of choreographed movements. For example, a shoveling motion is required for a song about coal mining. During some songs, dancers shout out short phrases in Japanese.

More than 300 people are expected make up the circle at the height of the ondo . Many will wear silk or cotton kimonos.

About 8 p.m., the dancers will rest, and the church's Taiko drum team will perform. For about 30 minutes, the drummers will attempt to unify their spirits through a forceful, yet extremely disciplined, method of drumming unique to the Taiko.

Obon is celebrated in the United States from the last weekend in June through the first weekend in August. Just as in Japan, it is a time of homecoming.

"It's a good time for people to get together," said West Los Angeles church festival organizer Tom Ikkanda. "It's not a solemn thing. It's supposed to be a joyous occasion.

"During Obon time, the majority of (Japanese) will go back to where they were born. That's what happens here more or less. They come back."

The Obon festival also serves as a fund-raiser for participating community groups and the church. A regional association of Buddhist churches schedules Obon ceremonies and festivals so people can attend more than one church's Obon activities.

Obon services for the West Los Angeles Church have been held during the past two weeks, and included a large memorial service honoring dead relatives, and group visits to two cemeteries, said the Rev. Harold Oda of the West Los Angeles church.

Festival organizers hope to attract members of the general community to this weekend's celebration. For those whose taste does not run to Japanese food, there will also be Chinese fare, hot dogs and pizza.

The West L.A. Buddhist Church is at 2003 Corinth Ave. Los Angeles. Festival hours are 5 to 10 p.m. Saturday and 3 to 9 p.m. Sunday. Dancing will begin at 7 p.m. both days.

Gardena Buddhist Church will hold its Obon festival the following weekend. Hours will be 4 to 10 p.m. Aug. 3, and 3 to 9 p.m. Aug. 4.

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