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Watsonville Buddhist Temple hosts annual Obon Festival

WATSONVILLE — A large crowd began to form in the courtyard at Watsonville Buddhist Temple on Sunday, eager to witness the highlight of the annual Obon Festival: the dancing.

“This is a moment of joy,” said Barbara Shingai, president of Watsonville Buddhist Temple. “Through our dancing we are expressing gratitude for the life we have received.”

Obon, also known as just Bon, is a Japanese custom dating back hundreds of years. It is meant to honor the spirits of one’s ancestors and celebrate the gift of life.

For many attending Sunday’s festival, it was also like coming home.

“We come back to Watsonville for this every year,” said Nancy Mattson, who grew up in Watsonville but now lives in Reno, Nev. “My mother turned 103 this year, and she’s here with us. It’s not just a religious celebration — it’s about community and family.”

Things kicked off at noon as a farmer’s market opened, along with a number of other food vendors and booths. At 2 p.m., Marimo-Kai, a koto and keyboard group from San Jose, performed for early attendees.

Families involved with Kokoro no Gakko, a cultural school held at the Watsonville Buddhist Temple every summer, were on hand at the festival, offering games and activities.

“It’s about keeping the Japanese culture alive,” said Natalia Kamimura, who helped at Kokoro no Gakko’s booth with her parents. “It’s really important.”

Watsonville Taiko took to the stage later in the afternoon. Drummers of all ages lined up and performed a number of pieces, with leader Ikuyo Conant explaining each piece beforehand. Younger drummers ran with rhythm instruments and flags to liven up the crowd.

Last year the Watsonville Buddhist community lost their long-time minister, Rev. Shousei Hanayama, not long before Obon. This year, the congregation celebrated the appointment of their new minister, Rev. Jay Shinseki.

Shinseki, who has in the past year been the temple’s supervising minister, will be the official minister effective Aug. 1.

“Being here for Obon right now is very fitting,” he said. “It is a time not only to honor families but bring the entire community together. That is what I hope to accomplish here in Watsonville — bridging gaps, embracing the diversity of this city.”

When the traditional dances, known as Bon Odori, began, the courtyard came alive with movement and colors. Dancers who had been practicing for the past month showed off their moves to family members and friends. And eventually, the crowd was invited to participate as well.

“Family and friendships run deep here in Watsonville,” Shinseki said. “You can really see that during Obon.”

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