Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Monday, August 13, 2007

More Goodbyes

Today (August 13th) is the first of the three days of Obon, also known as the "Bon Festival".

If you've spent any time on either this site or Pandabonium's Pacific Islander blog, you've already heard quite a bit about Obon. It is a Japanese festival of Buddhist origin, but it probably has its roots in China. During this three-day period it is believed that the spirits of deceased ancestors return to visit their family homestead. Therefore, family members usually get together for a sort of ritual celebration. Depending on the size of the extended family, it can amount to quite a large gathering. The festival has both solemn and lively elements. It is solemn because the gathered family members visit the family graves, clean them, leave offerings, and perform a ritual to beckon the ancestral spirits to accompany them back home. It is lively because many locations hold fireworks displays and/or bon odori, aka Bon Dances. (Our local elementary school used to hold a Bon Dance every year, and it was fun even before my own kids entered the school, but they canceled it five years ago and haven't done it since. The PTA apparently thought it was "too much trouble". Hmmph...) In other words, it is a festival of both life and death.

However, there is one more feature of the Bon Festival that Pandabonium and I haven't mentioned yet. Actually, it's more of a duty, and it's not a very pleasant one. Basically, every family which has suffered a death during the past year sets up a special memorial for the deceased. Acquaintances of the family then come to pay their respects. Quite often the tradition is for each household to choose one representative to go around and visit every such mourning family, particularly in the local neighborhood. If you live in an area such as mine, where the average age is probably over 70, there is quite often a very long list of families to visit. Considering "paying respects at the memorial" also involves giving money to and drinking tea with the family of the deceased, it can make for a long, busy, and expensive afternoon.

Actually, my in-laws live for that sort of thing. Going around visiting grieving neighbors and acquaintances allows them to reinforce their position in the community. Unfortunately, their age and state of health are making them less mobile, meaning more and more of the responsibility is falling into our hands. Thus far my wife has eagerly shouldered the burden as she feels far more qualified to do so (and I shan't argue). However, there was one such visit that I felt obligated to perform myself, or, as it turned out, with my father-in-law.

I have spoken quite a bit about Mr. Abe, that wonderful, old man who, together with his son, did the walls and roofing when my house was remodeled last spring. I talked about what great people they were, not only skilled (and very reasonable) with their work but also helpful in so many different ways. I described how the son in particular befriended my two children, spending much of his break times playing soccer with them or happily looking at my son's prized card collections. I mentioned that they started bring their dog, Astro, for the kids to play with. I told how Mr. Abe always made a point of giving everyone there, family or workers, cans of Max Coffee to drink.

I also mentioned that the son committed suicide only about a week after the work was finished.

Needless to say, visiting the Abe household to pay our respects was a matter of course. It would have been a crime not to do so. Therefore, my son and I both got in my father-in-law's car, and the three of us made the journey. It really was a journey, too, especially on such a hot and muggy day; the Abes live out in the town of Tohnosho, across the river in Chiba Prefecture almost an hour away even on my father-in-law's famous shortcuts. The homestead was both home and work; there was garage and shop space on the ground level and living space upstairs. The building was much bigger than I'd expected, though it had definitely seen many (probably much better) days. It was also in a very isolated location, surrounded by a circle of rice paddies enclosed in turn by steep hills. It was actually a beautiful area, though I wish the reasons for visiting had been happier.

There were quite a few well-wishers there, and they were being herded into a small guest memorial on the ground floor. On seeing us, however, Mr. Abe immediately insisted on bringing us upstairs to pay our respects at the much more elaborate family memorial set up in their living room. Despite the dark reasons for our being there, we had a good visit with the family. We met Mr. Abe's wife, his two daughters, and his grandchildren. While my son bashfully spent his time watching cartoons on the nearby TV, the rest of us chatted mainly about the deceased son over tea. Mr. Abe also made it very clear that, despite his age and the tolls it had exacted on his health (i.e. he's lacking in both teeth and hearing), he's not about to let his loss slow him down. Apparently he has some occasional help from hired hands, but for the most part he is still doing his work alone.

Last month he reroofed a temple, using traditional (heavy) ceramic roof tiles, almost entirely by himself. That man is amazing.

Most obon mourning visits last less than ten minutes, but we stayed for more than half an hour. After that we excused ourselves. Of course, Mr. Abe insisted on sending us off with a bag full of cans of Max Coffee. (Definitely no changing him!) After one, last, solemn look at the house/company and the scenic surroundings, we climbed back in the car, toweled off the sweat, and made the trip home, which didn't seem quite so long.



The first day of Obon was over. The goodbyes had been spoken. Now it was time for the memories to begin.

Aug. 15th update: I guess it's really not unusual for weird things to happen during the Bon season or any of the other events in which the deceased are remembered, but this time we had a doozy. Tonight, the last night of obon, not long after going to bed, both kids came running out of their bedrooms in fright because they'd heard what sounded like someone banging on their window. My daughter had also heard banging on an upstairs window above hers. You have to understand that my children's bedrooms are on opposite sides of the living room and quite isolated from each other. My son's room was also given a degree of soundproofing. Therefore, unless they had schemed the whole thing in advance, each had to have heard the sound individually. Another point to keep in mind is that my daughter's window is surrounded by shrubbery on the edge of a deep ditch that is totally unlit and in the shadow of the high, cement foundation of our neighbors' house. It's hard enough to get to in daylight; at night it's virtually inaccessible. So what was it that my children heard?

Sure, there are many rational possibilities. It could have been a disgruntled cicada or a bat flying into those three windows in succession. Someone might have been lobbing rocks at them from the neighbors' yard or otherwise playing a tasteless prank. Since my wife and I didn't hear the banging, there is also the chance that my kids concocted the whole thing as an excuse to get out of bed on a hot night.

Even so, the fact remains...those three windows, or at least the wall surrounding them, had been the last thing Mr. Abe's son had worked on before he died.

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8 Comments:

  • lol, we fill kids heads with fairy tales, and them wonder why they rush out of their room telling all sorts of big tales ...
    could it really be that their fertile imagination is working overtime and thinking of reasons not to be in bed on a hot night

    How can one ever be sure.

    By Blogger QUASAR9, at 5:30 PM  

  • PS - Moody have you heard
    Sounds From The Sun Make The Earth Dance
    -

    By Blogger QUASAR9, at 5:31 PM  

  • Quasar9
    Hello!
    It's hard to say what it was. I didn't hear anything as I was taking a bath at the time, but I came back to find both kids freaking out (and my wife sound asleep). It was pretty weird, though!

    BTW thanks for the link here and on your own site. That is really fascinating! I guess it only makes sense since energy conversion processes tend to produce vibrations, and the Earth and Sun interact in so many different ways (gravity, magnetism, electromagnetic energy, to say nothing of quantum transfer...).

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 7:02 PM  

  • It's amazing, the ties in Japan. I remember we HAD to visit the Neighbors when I visited Japan and it wasn't any kind of special occasion.

    It’s also weird how folks in the US misunderstand Obon, calling it a Japan Halloween. Although I admit, the ancient Pagan celebrations have some parallel.

    Oh, and thanks for the update: I was only read it in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep… ☺

    By Blogger Swinebread, at 8:23 PM  

  • That's a very heartwarming Obon story.

    Difficult as it may have been, I am glad to read that you visited Mr. Abe, whose life, son's life, and yours have been interconnected. Life goes on, (despite the odds as a friend used to say), and incorporates the lives of those who have predeceased us.

    As for noises in the night - all I can say is that is OK to not know. So often we feel a need to have an explanation or theory for everything we experience, even when evidence is incomplete. It is part of the mind to project, conjecture, think. It's OK not to know - point of interest, grounds for further research.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 9:51 PM  

  • I am with Pandabonium and I drink a virtual cup of tea to Aka as well.

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 2:33 AM  

  • Yaaaaa! i totally didn't see that connection coming until the end. I got a shiver up my spine.

    On a serious note, I wonder if anyone saw the signs - perhaps many people seem quite normal before deciding to end it. Which is quite sad because then friends and family wish they'd noticed more.

    Have you heard of the similar festival in India - I am not sure if it is just for the ancestors or encompasses all the spirits - possibly the latter because it's so heavy duty that for the duration of the festival NO ONE leaves the house, except the one mad white man who decided to make the documentary about it. that is the one place in the world where flights are grounded for that day, too - no incoming or outgoing. Imagine!

    By Blogger Olivia, at 5:49 AM  

  • I never understand what drives a person to take their own life. That one could feel emotional pain that would be greater than the pain of death mystifies me. As for the banging on the window, strange way to say hello. It would be worthwhile to greet Mr. Abe's son in case he is still visiting, but I am at a complete loss about how that would be done.

    By Blogger Maximilian Strange, at 12:10 PM  

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