Obon Festival opens door to Buddhist teachings

By Javier C. Hernandez, Mercury News, July 9, 2006

San Jose, CA (USA) -- Hovering over a blissful altar display in the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin is a gold-framed portrait of kanji characters reading ``kai ho zo.'' The Japanese writing translates simply: ``Open the Dharma storehouse.''

Several years ago, Michael Jones did just that, and now the Japantown temple -- the local storeroom of Buddhist teaching -- is one of the most popular attractions at the church's annual Obon Festival, which kicked off Saturday and continues today.

Thousands of Japanese cultural enthusiasts endured the sweltering 90-degree, plus temperatures Saturday to celebrate Obon, which commemorates a disciple who was able to save his mother from hell by taking Buddha's advice to make offerings to the dead.

And many of those non-Japanese celebrants in attendance at the packed street festival wandered into the Buddhist temple for a glimpse of a culture that is often kept private.

Jones, president of the church's board of directors, said he decided to open the temple to extended public viewing after seeing dozens of curious people tug and pound on the temple's ornate locked doors in past years. The church's pews are increasingly being filled by people foreign to Japanese culture, he said, and as a result, the church is staging even more events like these to reach out to intrigued visitors.

``Until two or three years ago, it was just an interest, a curiosity,'' said Jones, who himself was raised a Catholic before he took up Buddhism. ``People like it because it's seen as different.''

While others at the festival were enjoying sushi and games of ring toss, San Jose resident Eddie Northrup wandered through the temple reconnecting with a part of his heritage. Northrup is the son of a Japanese mother and American father and moved with his parents to the United States from Japan when he was 12 months old.

While Northrup says he is ``Americanized,'' Obon brings out his Japanese roots. ``I don't know a lot about Buddhism,'' he said. ``I have very little culture, but I do feel a connection with Japanese people.''

Curtis Takahashi, the vice president in charge of education for the church, said the concepts of Buddhism and Japanese culture are new for many festival-goers.

``They get bits and pieces of what they see on TV and read in the paper or hear from Richard Gere,'' he said. ``I hope they understand that it's not anything really exotic or incomprehensible -- it's something that speaks to people today.''

Takahashi and Jones guided many festival-goers through the church, explaining the significance of the hanging brass lanterns and the images of birds and flowers frozen in gold above the display. Many left the temple with a more enlightened understanding of the world's fourth-largest religion.

Robbie Chow, 7, guided his mother, Ruth, through the main temple, pointing at the elaborate candlesticks and lanterns. He said his favorite parts were the altars and the gold. His mother, a San Jose radiation therapist, was surprised by the elaborateness of the display.

``We just like the whole feeling of the festival,'' Ruth Chow said.

In the afternoon, more than 50 people packed the temple for a crash course in basic Buddhism. With the noise of Taiko drummers pounding out front in the street and the scent of tempura wafting in the air, minister Ken Fujimoto led the group in an opening ``Jusei Ge'' -- a sacred chant accompanied by percussive strikes of a gong.

Fujimoto said the audiences he speaks to are often curious about the material -- not necessarily the spiritual -- elements of the temple. ``People always ask, `Is that real gold?' ''