Above, Paper lanterns float in the pond of the Como Park Japanese Garden during the Obon Festival to honor the dead last Sunday. A stone lantern is also lit in the foreground, one of six lanterns that were part of the original Japanese garden at Como Park in the early 20th century. (AAP photo by Wua Xiong)
By WUA XIONG
AAP staff writer
St. Paul, Minn. (August 15, 2010) – According to Buddhist tradition and Japanese cultural beliefs, the souls of the dead may interact with the living at the time of Obon. The Japanese Buddhist Obon or “Bon” festival takes place each year as a custom to honor ancestors that have passed away. This tradition has been celebrated in Japan for more than 500 years and is also celebrated in Saint Paul as the Como Park Japanese Lantern Lighting Festival.
During the time of Obon it is said that ancestral spirits may revisit their families for three days. Families pay their respects at gravesites by placing offerings of food and drink on a tray before an alter. They also light lanterns or small fires outside the house to guide the souls symbolically to the home.
This past Sunday marked the 12th annual festival, which began as an afternoon of cultural celebrations – followed by the beautiful and spiritually charged evening lantern lighting at dusk.
There were cultural booths, venders and exhibitions of martial arts, origami, ikebana, Japanese pottery and fabrics, and bonsai specimens from the Minnesota Bonsai Society. The Main Stage entertainment included taiko performances, traditional Japanese music and folk dancing. The tranquil setting of the Japanese garden was enhanced by koto and shakuhachi flute performers.
“This festival has been going for about 12 years and three organizations have partnered to do this,” said Heidi McCalla, a volunteer with the Japanese America Society of Minnesota. “The Saint Paul Nagasaki Sister City Committee, the Como Park Volunteers Association, and JASM work together to make this event today happen,”
The Como Park Zoo and Conservatory provides the space each year, where guests can visit the adjoining Japanese Garden and Tea House grounds. At dusk, a pond is used to float the wood and paper lanterns with a candle burning inside to create a moving ancestral tribute.
“Many years ago the Saint Paul Nagasaki sister city were having a festival and Japan America society of Minnesota and approached them to do something together and the festival were brought over to Como,” said Matt Reinartz, Marketing and Public Relations Manager for Como Park Conservatory.
After several years the event has become as much about family, community and fun as the customary Obon evolved into a family reunion holiday.
One of the new booths this year offered storytelling and selling candy also known as Kamichibai, literally “paper drama”. It is a form of storytelling originated by Buddhist Monks. Most stories consist of 12 or 16 large and beautifully illustrated cards.
“It is a neat cultural event and before the lantern lighting there is so much to do: there is food, entertainment, martial arts, and the day culminates with the lantern lighting but before that there are also lots to do; there are tons of vendors. Every year it gets bigger and better,” said Reinartz.
As twilight comes the Obon mood shifts to become a special moment to each individual no matter their beliefs.
For Kristen Mastel, entertainment coordinator for the festival, Obon means “peace and tranquility, and a time to reflect on the similarities and beauty of our own culture and those of others around the world.
“It is to remember your family and friends and cherish the warmth of the memories and also to look forward to a bright future with new friends and new memories that will be created on a beautiful summer night,” said McCalla.
Learn more about Japan studies, business, culture, community events and volunteering at Japan America Society of Minnesota at www.mn-japan.org or Saint Paul Nagasaki Sister City Committee at www.stpaulnagasaki.org.