2023 Natsumatsuri Family Festival Brought Over 2,500 Visitors to JANM!

On August 12, 2023, JANM welcomed 2,715 visitors to its annual summer celebration featuring free cultural performances, crafts, and activities in downtown Los Angeles.

Our Natsumatsuri Family Festival kicked off with a powerful performance by the award-winning TAIKOPROJECT. Their song, “Omiyage,” conveyed the custom of the same name where a person gives gifts to friends, colleagues, or family when visiting a place. TAIKOPROJECT’s closing performance was all about audience participation with call and response of ichi ni sou rei and oroshi, a series of hits to the drum that slowly speeds up in tempo. Kids and adults alike joined together to play the drums in two different rounds, raising their bachi (drum sticks) to the sky before bringing them down for the first hit and yelling the call (ichi ni) and response (sou rei).

Elaine Fukumoto from the Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple led a group bon odori (traditional dance) in JANM’s Aratani Central Hall. “We’re dancing fools and we want more dancing fools to join us,” said Fukamoto, encouraging visitors participating in origami and the scavenger hunt to join the dance circle as she led a group lesson with songs like “Sakura” and “Pokemon Ondo.”

Outside on the courtyard, the comedy and improv group Cold Tofu performed skits based on the audience’s suggestions. They played games like English Gibberish where audience members gave two cast members the theme archenemies and they improvised a conversation while switching from English to babble all while staying in character. They also played Pop-Up Storybook where audience members gave all cast members an adjective (smoky) and a noun (sewing machine) to narrate a unique four-part story called “the smoky sewing machine.”

The festivities continued throughout the afternoon with a kendo demonstration by Sho Tokyo Kendo Dojo, a printmaking workshop with artist David Horvitz in collaboration with Printed Matter’s LA Art Book Fair, and a taiko workshop led by longtime JANM Volunteer Hal Keimi.

Closing out our family festival was a fabulous shamisen jazz and blues performance by Yu Ooka and Kimo Cornwell of the Yu-ki Project. Ooka is a Los Angeles–based shamisen player and guitarist, and Cornwell is a Grammy-nominated keyboardist. They performed original songs such as “Train Home to Osaka,” Working Man,” and “Where the Tree Grows.” They were then joined by Karen Evans, an amazing singer from Inglewood, California who toured the world with Ray Charles. Together, they played James Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good),” Bobby Caldwell’s “What You Won’t Do for Love,” ZZ Hill’s “Down Home Blues,” and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” to a grooving audience.

We hope to see you next year for our Oshogatsu Family Festival in January 2024! Check our Events Calendar later this year for more about our next free family festival.

Yu Ooka and Kimo Cornwell of the jazz shamisen band Yu-ki Project and Karen Evans play jazz and blues. Photo by Joe Akira.

Minyo Station’s Uniquely Japanese American Music

Photo courtesy of Minyo Station.
Photo courtesy of Minyo Station


Established in 2008, the band Minyo Station blends traditional Japanese folk music with contemporary genres to create a unique sound. Minyo Station is one of the featured performers at JANM’s upcoming Natsumatsuri Family Festival. JANM production intern Amy Matsushita-Beal helped to conduct the following email interview with band leader Yu Ooka to learn more about the group.

JANM: Can you explain what minyo is and what it sounds like, for people who don’t know?

Yu Ooka: For people who have never heard it before, it might be easiest to describe minyo as “the blues of Japan.” Many centuries ago, people sang songs while farming or fishing; doing so made the time pass and encouraged the workers to keep going until the job was done. There is a famous minyo song called “Tanko Bushi” that is played during bon odori dances, which honor ancestors as part of Japan’s annual Obon festivities. The song was originally sung by coal miners; tanko means coal mine and bushi means melody or tune. At some point, musical instruments like taiko drums and shamisen (traditional Japanese three-stringed lute) were added to the mix.

JANM: What does “contemporary Japanese folk music” mean to you? What other genres do you incorporate into your act besides minyo?

YO: Unfortunately, minyo sometimes has a reputation for being “old music” that’s “not for young people.” We decided to mix minyo with different Western genres like R&B, pop, rock, funk, and jazz to make it more listener-friendly and more appealing to younger generations—in other words, more contemporary. Our band uses guitar, bass, keyboards, and percussion in addition to vocals and shamisen. Some of LA’s finest musicians, who have worked for major artists like Aretha Franklin and Al Jarreau, contribute on the Western side, while the Eastern side has classically trained minyo artists. At its heart though, our music is still very much minyo music—it just might have some jazz chords or rock rhythms in it.

Photo courtesy of Minyo Station.
Photo courtesy of Minyo Station


JANM: You wear traditional Japanese garments in your performances. Is this important to you, and why?

YO: Minyo Station’s mission is to keep this beautiful traditional music alive and pass it on to the next generation. We represent Japanese tradition, which we must never forget. That is why we wear kimonos instead of fancy leather jackets!

JANM: Yu, you have a background as a jazz guitarist. How did you get involved with minyo? Are the two styles complementary?

YO: Yes, I was a guitarist first. I knew about minyo, but I never played it while I was living in Japan. After I moved to the U.S., I came across many Japanese cultural activities, including minyo, which was introduced to me by a friend. I started learning how to play the shamisen, and it became a great honor for me to work with this kind of music.

Minyo and jazz do share some similarities. For instance, when you play jazz, you have to “swing” in order to make a rhythm; this means not following the metronome precisely but rather, listening to and responding to the musicians around you. It’s the same with minyo—you have to communicate with the other musicians through your music.

JANM: Your band plays at a variety of venues, including museums and festivals. What are your favorite places to perform, and why?

YO: Every place where we perform is special for us. We play from the bottom of our hearts and we sincerely enjoy sharing minyo with every audience we encounter. We believe people can feel the spirit of the music even if they can’t understand the words. We look forward to performing at JANM and hope people enjoy it.

Minyo Station will perform at 3 p.m. this Saturday, August 15; they will also provide the music for our community bon odori dance at 12:30. Both events take place in JANM’s Aratani Central Hall. For a complete schedule of Natsumari Family Festival activities, click here.

Obon: Dances for the Dead

Obon Festival, Tokyo, 2011. Photo by bhollar via Flickr.
Obon Festival, Tokyo, 2011. Photo by bhollar via Flickr.

Obon is a Japanese holiday to honor deceased ancestors, much like the European Halloween or the Latin American Día de los Muertos. Rooted in Buddhist traditions, Obon ensures that we express gratitude for the hard work of the generations before us.

The Ullambana Sutra, a Buddhist text, tells the story of a monk named Mokuren who was initially unable to help his suffering mother’s spirit pass on. In response, the Buddha created a ritual and offering for the living to assist their ancestors’ souls and bless relatives who are still living. These practices became the basis for the modern-day Obon festival.

Obon festivals are held in July and August, in Japan and Japanese immigrant communities throughout the world. The original sutra appointed the fifteenth day of the seventh month as the holiday, but there are variations in date because of differences between the Gregorian and lunar calendars. The festivals feature food, music, and most importantly, dancing!

Bon Odori, San Jose Obon Festival, 2012. Photo by --Mark-- via Flickr Creative Commons.
Bon Odori, San Jose Obon Festival, 2012.
Photo by –Mark– via Flickr.


When Mokuren’s mother’s soul found peace, it is said that he reacted by dancing. Obon dancing, or bon odori, is an important part of Obon festivals throughout Japan, with certain regions even having their own unique dances. Dances have been also developed abroad by Japanese emigrants living in countries such as America or Brazil. Live music, including taiko drumming, typically accompanies the dancing.

In Japan, some families return to their parents’ homes to celebrate Obon. These celebrations often include cleaning up family gravesites and offering food to ancestors. Another custom involves floating lanterns down a river in hopes that the lights will help guide souls that remain on this earthly plane.

Even though Obon is based on Buddhist beliefs, no one is excluded from celebrating. Obon festivals are important community events, and celebrating the departed doesn’t require any special religious belief. The Obon dances and food here in America may be different from those in Japan, but all the festivals maintain the same reverence for family and community.

Visitors get in the Obon spirit with a communal bon odori dance at JANM's 2013 Natsumatsuri Family Festival. Photo by Russell Kitagawa.
Visitors get in the Obon spirit with a communal bon odori dance at JANM’s 2013 Natsumatsuri Family Festival. Photo by Russell Kitagawa.


JANM’s Natsumatsuri Family Festival on August 9, 2014 will feature a lecture on Obon traditions by Rimban Bill Briones of Los Angeles Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple and a participatory bon odori dance. Come learn more about Obon and celebrate your ancestors!

This post was written by Mitchell Lee, one of JANM’s 2014 summer program interns. Mitchell is a student at UCLA, where he is majoring in Japanese and Asian American Studies.

Natsumatsuri: Bon Odori

While the Museum prepares for Natsumatsuri on Saturday, August 10th, we thought we’d get everyone pumped by putting a spotlight on some of the upcoming activities! Look forward to more of these posts explaining Natsumatsuri traditions.

Ondo dancing at the 2007 Orange County Buddhist Church Obon.
(Photo: Vicky Murakami-Tsuda)


This August, come get your groove on at JANM! The Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple will be teaching bon odori, or traditional Japanese folk dances often performed at obon festivals in the summer.

During a bon odori, dancers line up and perform to traditional folk songs along with the beat of a taiko. The dancers, nowadays often multi-generational and multiethnic, circle the drummer, who is perched on a raised wooden scaffold. The songs vary from festival to festival, with different regional favorites (such as Tokyo ondo or tanko bushi, the coal miner’s dance). Some odori use props like kachi kachi (small wooden clappers) or different types of fans.

Although the style dates back all the way to the late Heian (794-1185) period, the first bon odori in Los Angeles was in 1933 or ‘34 at the nearby Hompa Hongwanji temple. Today, you can find bon odori at obons all across California, from Los Angeles to San Jose.

See for yourself what a bon odori looks like in this video of a Nishi Hongwanji obon!


(Video: Ralph Moratz)

2013 Natsumatsuri Family Festival
Saturday, August 10, 2013
11AM – 5PM

1PM: Obon History & Traditions
What is Obon all about? Rev. Bill Briones of Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple will discuss the history and traditions of Obon in Japan and the United States

2:30PM: Obon Dance Demonstration
Get ready to dance! Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple will show you how to dance traditional Obon dances

For full schedule of activities: janm.org/natsumatsuri2013