Japanese legend has it that a monk named Mogallana rescued his mother from the depths of hell after he took the Buddha's advice to share his wealth with others.
On that fateful day in 538, the first obon festival was born as Mogallana, overcome with joy, clapped and danced in a circle with other Buddhist disciples.
The spirit of Mogallana was alive and well this weekend at the annual Obon Festival, held since 1963 at the San Fernando Valley Community Center in Pacoima. The festival, which blended Japanese tradition with an American-style carnival atmosphere, is an occasion for Japanese Buddhists to remember and celebrate their ancestors, said Maria Itaya, a member of the San Fernando Valley Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, which organized the festival.
One of the American touches was the casual dress, encouraged by soaring temperatures Sunday. Some of the folk dancers wore shorts and T-shirts instead of the traditional kimonos worn by women, and the yukata robes and happi coats, the ancient dress of Japanese men.
"Obon is a memorial service emphasizing the oneness of life," said Itaya, who organized a raffle inside one of 30 carnival tents set up behind the community center.
The two-day event drew an estimated crowd of 25,000 people, only about half of whom were Japanese, from all over Southern California, Itaya said.
In addition to the traditional folk dances and taiko drum performances, the celebration included a display of bonsai trees, Japanese dolls, flower arrangements and a tea ceremony.
One young man used a bamboo whisk to mix ground green tea leaves with hot water, while Japanese women served the mixture to the people.
"It's an old Japanese tradition where Daimyo, the military general or warlord, did it for relaxation," Itaya said of the ritual tea ceremony.
The taste of the thick tea was described by festival goer Tony Kim, 26, of Orange, as being "a little strong." The tea may have left a bitter taste in his mouth, but the day's events did not.
"I'm having a good time," he said.