Saturday, May 26, 2018     Volume: 19, Issue: 12

Santa Maria Sun / Art

The following article was posted on July 24th, 2013, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 14, Issue 20 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 14, Issue 20

The Guadalupe Buddhist Church celebrates life and death with the Obon Festival


McKynize Garcia showed off her kimono next to the Santa Maria Veterans Memorial Building fountain during the 2010 Obon Festival hosted by the Guadalupe Buddhist Church.

As dancers move in unison, the silent rush of cotton kimonos and the shuffling of tall wooden geta sandals tell the story of ancestors and the hardships they suffered to make it through life.

Bon Odori is a traditional style of dancing used to help celebrate the Obon Festival in Japan and all over the world. The Guadalupe Buddhist Church is practicing eight Bon Odori dances to showcase at the upcoming Obon Festival in Santa Maria on July 28.

Guadalupe Buddhist Church has celebrated the festival for decades. It’s a way for church members to pay homage to their ancestors, those who passed in the last year, and to the people in their lives now. The festival also raises the funds for the church.

“This is big,” said festival coordinator Alice Utsunomiya. “It covers the whole year for us at the church, financially.”

Utsunomiya has coordinated the festival since the late 1990s. Before that she taught the Bon Odori dances that church members performed during the festival. She said the dances range from more traditional, slower, graceful movements to a newer style with quicker, “jazzier” movements.

Bon Odori dancers celebrate their ancestors by telling a story with their movements, like at the 2010 Obon Festival.

Dancers use kimonos, round fans, folding fans, and Utsunomiya’s personal favorite, towels, to supplement their storytelling. Unfortunately, she said the towels won’t make an appearance at this year’s festival, but there will be taiko drummers beating on their skin drums with sticks. Bonsai demonstrations, sushi, a teriyaki chicken dinner, and crafts are also on the schedule.

In Japan the Obon Festival is celebrated around July 15 or August 15, depending on the part of the country. Japanese travel agencies are busiest during the season of Obon, though it’s not considered a national holiday. Festivities can last for three days, with dancing, eating, and lighting lanterns for late family members. It’s a tradition in the Buddhist community that dates back to the year 657.

Utsunomiya said the festival has been in Guadalupe since “way before I was born.” She’s seen both the church and the festival grow since she started teaching Bon Odori in 1968. The church has expanded to include non-Japanese members, and the festival moved from the church to the Santa Maria Fairpark, before settling at the Santa Maria Veterans Memorial Building.

Last year was one of the most successful festivals Utsunomiya’s seen. She said every last piece of food was sold.

Obon season
Obon festivals are celebrated all over the world. In California, many of the festivals are celebrated from July to August. For a listing of festivals in California or to learn more about Obon, visit the West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple website at The festival in Santa Maria kicks off at the Santa Maria Veterans Memorial Building at noon on July 28. The activities run until 6:30 p.m. The event is free, but tickets for a teriyaki chicken dinner will be pre-sold. They are $8 and include a half-chicken, rice, edamame, and a fortune cookie. To buy tickets, contact Utsunomiya at 868-7286 or call Alice Maxon at 714-6410. The San Luis Obispo Buddhist Church will hold its festival in Arroyo Grande at the St. Patrick’s School, 900 W. Branch St, on Aug. 3 from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m.

“People got this impression that it was going to be the last one,” Utsunomiya said.

Newspapers in the valley, including the Sun, reported that last year’s festival might be the last one. Last year, Utsunomiya was hoping to retire from being the lead festival organizer, but decided to come back for another year. She recently assured the Sun that she doesn’t see a future without the Obon Festival.

The Guadalupe Buddhist Church’s sister church in San Luis Obispo will also be celebrating an Obon Festival. Reverend Naomi Nakano is the minister at both churches.

Nakano has been a minister for the last nine years, practicing at the sister churches for the last two. She explains the Obon Festival as a way to honor those who have helped “us through our existence.”

“Without them, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” she said. “If you really think about it, if your parents didn’t teach you, we would be like wolves.”

She said the festival is something that not all Buddhist sects celebrate. The Bon Odori dances are the focal point of the festivities. Most of the dances are folk dances that tell a story. There’s a coal miner’s dance, a sailor’s dance, and a dance of gratitude. She said most of the stories tell of hard work and what ancestors went through.

As far as why dancing is used for the celebrations, Nakano puts it like this: “There’s an old saying: There are two kinds of fools in this world, the fool who watches, and the fools who dance. If you’re going to be a fool, you might as well be the one dancing.”


Staff Writer Camillia Lanham suffers more fools than she’d care to admit. Contact her at


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