What a privilege it has been to walk through this Obon holiday with Toshiaki’s family. Although I had experienced a part of it once, I must have been pre-occupied with the kids and not aware of all the preparation, purpose and meaning of this celebration. Especially this year with so many people suddenly taken from this region in one clean swoop. Five months have passed and people are still gathering news of ‘who lost who.’ Even without the tsunami, the respect shown to the deceased is a beautiful custom, however, the impact was even more so this year.
On the morning after I arrived in Yamada, we heard the house stir a little before 6am. I went straight to work on my writing and morning meditations and Toshiaki, knowingly went downstairs to help with the pre-Obon set-up. Boxes were pulled out of dusty, backs of cupboards, ornate lamps were assembled, ceremonial dishes were unboxed, dusted and placed accordingly. Ojiichan (grandpa) and Toshiaki would take turns going to the garden and finding the ripest soybeans, the healthiest corncobs and the most shapely eggplants to strategically place on the plates in front of the pictures of obaachan’s parents. All this preparation was for the friends and relatives who would visit on their rounds before and after visiting the grave site over the three-day holiday.
It reminded me of the day every year my mother would decorate for Christmas. A little disheveled at first, but her finished creation was always beautiful. Toshiaki scolded me for taking a ‘before’ picture and said, “wait until it’s finished.” His mom, obaachan, is one of nine sisters. While not the eldest, she inherited her fathers house, farm-land, name and responsibility of taking care of the parents in life and after-life. Thus, she gets to display the temple in her home this weekend.
The following day also started early. Obaachan prepared a thermos of tea, and one of water, candles, incense, lighters, flowers, snacks, rice, mosquito repellant, fans (to relieve us from the heat and shoe away bugs), and a change purse of coins. Two of Toshiaki’s brothers, Satoshi and Kazuhiro arrived with their wives, Kazuko and Miwako, one grandson, Takahiro and obaachan’s only great-grandchild, Mana (3 years old). It was certainly not the complete family, nonetheless, four generations took off and headed for the trek. Ojiichan stayed behind to greet any visitors and was to keep track of who brought what gift, per Obaachan’s instructions. This did not happen and it was later, lightly suggested that we have a sign-in sheet at the door to relieve Ojiichan of the chore of remembering.
I wanted to desperately take pictures of the first day of grave visiting to share, however, it just was not appropriate that day. I hope my words will do.
We arrived at the grave site and immediately Toshiaki’s cousin, Takehiko’s sparkling new headstone was pointed out. We passed it as there was a ranking order of where to visit first. Up the trail we went weaving through the tree-covered graves, huffing and puffing until we arrived at the grave of Obaachan’s parents. The women went to work while I took mental note, knowing more and more that I am no longer a passing visitor in this family and will need this information some day. Food was laid out, tea and water was poured, flowers from Obaachan’s garden were carefully arranged in the permanent holders, candles lit and incense distributed. Then one by one each person would light the incense, lay it before the grave, kneel, hands folded and head bowed. Three-year-old Mana took it upon herself to keep the line moving, ordering which person would go next. We all dutifully obeyed her orders, then made sure all candles and incense were extinguished. The crows in the trees readied themselves for a Thanksgiving feast.
We then continued up the hill and over to another smaller site with just two medium sized rocks. I whispered to Kazuko, “who’s place is this?” “Oh, this is grandma and grandpa Horiai too, before we could afford a proper site and headstone. We visit here just in case their spirits remained here too.” Everyone lightly chuckled. A less elaborate procedure followed while Mana lined us up again.
By now Mana had warmed up to the blonde aunt and held my hand as we proceeded to yet another ornate display inside the temple. There were many places to toss coins, ring bells and tap drum-like wooden fish (木魚). I didn’t feel solely out of the loop as it appeared that Toshiaki and the others didn’t really know the meaning to everything they did, just that they had been doing it year after year and it brought solidarity and comfort (maybe similar to many things we do in the west?). We came to a statue where people would rub the belly or head of the Buddha. I looked at Miwako and she said, ” go ahead, rub anywhere.” Toshiaki went next and rubbed the ball in the Buddha’s hand, which immediately dislocated the hand from the statue. (oops!) While we all watched, jaws dropped, he quickly placed it back in the socket as we all giggled and scurried away.
We passed neighbors and relatives as we weaved through the gravesides and temple. I had long ago decided to bow my head and greet everyone I passed in Yamada, not knowing who was a relative or neighbor, just to be safe. We paid homage to some more graves and before leaving our last two stops were Toshiaki’s two cousins, Takehiko and Ruriko, who were killed by the tsunami or as they more gently say here, ‘they were swept away.’ Takehiko was in the new site next to his father who had died earlier this year. Ruriko was in anew site that would be for her and her husbands family. She was my age and left a husband and two teenage sons. There were rows of flowers; I’m guessing from the lives she had touched. The women in our family were quiet at this site and we all seemed to linger longer in our silent prayer.