Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

An Olympic Achievement...

...and an even more olympically cliche title...

Yes, I was worried. I think a lot of people were. I still remember the debacle of the 2004 Asia Cup soccer tournament, when the final match was played between Japan and China in Beijing. The entire game was a loud cacophony of boos and jeers from the Chinese fans, who then went rabid, rioted, rampaged through Beijing despite an army of riot police, and attacked the cars, buses, and/or hotels of Japanese players, fans, coaches, and at least one Japanese diplomat when Japan won the game. (They say no one was reported injured, which seems unlikely considering the scale and level of violence.) I was not alone in my concern that any athlete from any country might be in serious danger if s/he won out over a Chinese favorite. There was also no small worry about radical islamists from Yunnan Province, who had already started setting off bombs around the country and issuing threats to attack the Olympics. (A video they issued just before the Opening Ceremony, an image of the "Bird's Nest" stadium superimposed with an explosion, was a chilling reminder that all was not well in the Middle Kingdom.) And then of course there was that Tibet thing. The situation in Tibet is complicated enough, but then there are all those half-cocked, would-be activists from around the world, many if not most of whom probably know very little about the real situation but are still prepared to get as much publicity as they can (mainly for themselves, I'd wager) by any means. Yes, it was getting to be a complicated Olympics long before the Opening Ceremony kicked off.

I really have to congratulate China on a job (mostly) well done.

Yes, I know all the stories about the various disasters and gaffes involving said Opening Ceremony, such as the media film of the fireworks display that was really CG animation, the little girl singer who was replaced at the last minute by a lip-syncing stand-in because a Communist Party official didn't think the singer herself was "cute enough", and the culturally important traditional dancer whose platform collapsed during rehearsal leaving her a paraplegic for life. I've also been hearing the steady stream of "uh-ohs" that are still coming out of the Olympics as a whole, such as the issue with the age of certain woman gymnasts, the Chinese skeet shooter who was awarded points for shots he obviously missed, the U.S. National Anthem suddenly coming to a dead halt during one of Michael Phelps' many medal ceremonies, or the fact that the recordings of the national anthems used at the medal ceremonies were found out to be pirated copies of the 2004 Athens Olympics recordings! And then of course there is that whole issue of journalists finding out the hard way just how much the Chinese government respects freedom of the press. Indeed, there have been some pretty profound "hole in foot which is also in mouth" stories coming out of this Olympics, I'm sure many of which will be circulating for years.

Even so, you can't deny that the Chinese really did a fantastic job overall. The venues were excellent. The Chinese fans showed both respect and good sportsmanship even despite Beijing's reputation as being one of the rudest cities in the world. The staff kept things going smoothly. Most importantly, the Games were kept secure and free of any trouble from unruly fans, terrorists, or crazed activists. (Yes, there were a few individuals who managed to steal some very interesting few seconds of fame, but nothing like what I'd feared.) The Chinese clearly hoped to use the Beijing Olympics as an opportunity to prove that China is no longer a disgruntled Third World country or an irrationally idealistic pariah state, but a modern and capable power player in the international arena. In this they clearly won a gold medal.

Now that I've captured your attention (cue diabolical grin), I'd like to give some of my own comments and observations about the 2008 Beijing Olympics:

  • In the case of Japan in particular it was definitely like something out of Tales of the Unexpected. We saw several iconic superstars land on their butts, sometimes quite literally. Many if not most of the top names in judo came away with bronze medals if anything at all. Table tennis darling Ai Fukuhara, who actually plays in China and has a following there, didn't get anything. I won't even talk about the baseball team. (Actually, yes I will, but later.) On the other hand, we saw some medals won in some events for the first time ever. There was Yuki Ota's amazing silver medal in fencing. There was also that spectacular gold medal won in softball against the U.S., who had been undefeated till then. I actually prefer an unpredictable Olympics to a predictable one, and I always love it when an underdog wins, so there was a lot here to make me happy.
  • I always face a dilemma whenever an event is Japan vs. U.S.A. because I feel guilty no matter who I root for. It seemed like there were a lot of such events, too. C'est la vie.
  • You know...I really wish Japan would learn a bit of sportsmanship! I'm not just talking about the athletes, either. Whenever someone who was believed to have even a remote possibility of winning a medal came away empty-handed, we first had to deal with the inevitable post-event sobbing in front of the camera. (*sniff* "I really did {sob} try my best!" *sniff* "I just {sob} couldn't get it this {sob} time! *sniff, slobber* "I'm SO {sob} SORRY!!!") Then every major news program would have its sympathy/soul-searching segments with a gloomy-sounding narrator and lots of sad violins playing in the background. And if the loser happened to be one of those iconic superstars, we'd be forced to sit through these epic waaaaah sessions over and over and over again...especially if the superstar in question announced gloomily that s/he was throwing in the towel, as happened with some of them. I mean...look, people...IN SPORTS, SOMETIMES PEOPLE WIN, AND SOMETIMES PEOPLE LOSE! THAT'S PART OF COMPETITION, AND IT'S ALSO PART OF LIFE!!!! We've been having enough problems here with this recent rash of disgruntled individuals freaking out and killing people at random because they never learned to deal with disappointment in their childhood. Maybe certain athletes could try being good role models instead of helping contribute to the problem!
  • Speaking of poor sportsmanship, I really have to feel sorry for Sweden's Olympic athletes. People tend to remember bad things far longer than good things, and I have a feeling wrestler Ara Abrahamian's ringside temper tantrum followed by his dumping his bronze medal on the floor during the awards ceremony is going to haunt them for a long time. He claims he is a victim of politics and told Japanese interviewers that "international wrestling is rotten". However, he apparently put on a similar though less flamboyant display of waaaaah-ness after winning a silver medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics, claiming he tied the Russian winner but was declared the loser for political reasons. (He said he was going to retire after that, but then he came to Beijing anyway. Does that mean we are going to see more of him?)
  • How about that Michael Phelps? Eight gold medals and how many records? The man is incredible. I'm also really impressed with Japan's Kosuke Kitajima. Sure, he only won two gold medals in swimming and only set one new world record, but it's still a remarkable achievement. Besides, he doesn't have the news media going all ape-shyte over whether or not he's getting wet with a woman swimmer...who says "Ewww" when asked if she kissed him. (Do I even give a f*** about that? Our survey says BAAAAAAAH!) Face it: American news is dead...
  • How about that Jamaican runner, Usain Bolt? It's interesting enough to see a gold-medal runner who isn't American, Canadian, or from any African country. And I mean...Jamaica? The island that is famous for reggae, Bob Marley, coffee, rum, riots, and a certain plant with clusters of pointy leaves? Hey, frankly, I'm glad to see it!
  • Japan's badminton team came so close to pulling off a coup, but just as they found their groove they suddenly lost it again and lost their match against South Korea, ending up 4th. That was perhaps the most entertaining anticlimax of this Olympics, but it was a good fight.
  • Japan's Olympic baseball team started its life with a practice game against a team of selected pro-league players. The Olympic team got stomped 11-3. No medal this time? Meh. I was surprised they did as well as they did. Then again, Japan's softball team wasn't heralded at all, and look what they did!
  • One of my fondest moments of this Olympics was watching a Tunisian swimmer take a gold medal in one of the events. Not only did it make me happy to see someone other than the usual suspects win a swimming medal, but the look on his face during the medal ceremony said it all. Good, honest pride was written all over him as his national anthem was being played. It was a look you don't seem to see much in Olympics anymore. So many winners just seem smug and/or arrogant...if they show any emotion at all. This man was happy both for himself and his country, proud of the fact that he was on that stand with his country's flag rising to the highest position. Not a famous hero, not from a powerful nation, but now he's on top of the world. Things like that are what the Olympics are supposed to be all about.
  • Perhaps my fondest schadenfreude moment of this Olympics came during that women's bicycle race when a diabolically-minded South Korean cyclist intentionally zipped through the pack and cut off a whole row of cyclists, triggering a pileup. No doubt she thought that it was a sneaky but effective way to get her competitors out of her hair and out of her way...but in the process she bumped one of the cyclists she cut off, lost control, wound up in the ditch, twisted her ankle, and had to drop out. As the Japanese say: Zamaa-miro! (Serves you right!)
  • How about that closing ceremony? I didn't see the opening ceremony, so I can't compare, but I was truly impressed with that human pagoda! I realize that Olympic opening/closing ceremonies have been trying to outdo each other in terms of modern, artsy weirdness for at least the past two decades, but I found this one very tastefully done. The British contribution seemed a bit weak by comparison, but I was happy to see Jimmy Page there sharing a whole lotta love with Leona Lewis! Beckham's appearance induced rolled eyes, but at least the soccer ball he kicked landed among the Japanese athletes and was snatched up by one of the swimmers!
I tried to post a YouTube video of the Page/Lewis performance, but, ironically, they seem to be getting pulled off with amazing speed. I give you this instead...a collection of snapshots with the original "Whole Lotta Love" playing. Enjoy!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Shock and Awe

At long last summer nears its end, and Ye Olde Academy beckons once again. Time to try to get back to the everyday reality. I don't know if it'll be possible, though. The events of this, the summer that wound up not happening (grim fanfare), have changed things wayyyyyy too much for there to be any hope of it ever being the same (or something like that...).

I haven't posted anything but song links for ages. I need to do some updating...

  • My father-in-law has finally chilled out a bit. He has started getting more than two hours of sleep per night and has stopped trying to be a non-stop workaholic. He pretty much had to; his health finally fell apart out from under him. His near-constant temper tantrums and irrational demands have eased off, too. Not completely, mind you, but enough for there to be some peace around here.
  • He wasn't the only one in the family to have health issues, either. On Tuesday the 12th my wife woke up with a positively nasty stomach bug coupled with leg and hip pain and a nasty cough...but she went to work anyway. On the 13th I came down with the same symptoms, but even worse. I was wiped out for almost two full days. On the 14th, as I was finally getting better, my son got sick. FIL finally insisted on taking him to the doctor (which my wife and I had both refused to do as we assumed it to be a normal "24-hour flu"), but he didn't really tell the doctor very much. The doctor, not knowing that others in the family had been sick with the same symptoms, took one look at my son's fat gut and dismissed it as "metabolic syndrome from overeating". (Naturally, FIL immediately accepted that line without question.) Finally, on the 16th, my daughter came down with the same symptoms AND FIL's condition got a whole lot worse. I took my daughter to the same doctor who had "seen" my son, but this time I gave him a detailed explanation. He ordered a full battery of tests on my daughter as "representative" of my family. It turned out she had a mycoplasma infection. Last year there was a bit of a mycoplasma epidemic in this area, and all the schools had to take various preventative measures. My daughter apparently got it, and has likely had it for a while. At any rate, the doctor said that, barring a test result showing me NOT infected, I should assume my whole family had the disease and should see about getting medicine for it. (Apparently there is only one type of medicine that is an effective cure, as mycoplasma is resistant to ordinary antibiotics.) FIL had also been having terrible leg pain and a sore throat, so, just in case, I loaded him up in my BLUE RAV4 (practically by force since he didn't want to leave the house) and left to try to get him and myself examined. As it turned out, almost every clinic in this part of Japan was closed for the Obon holidays, so we finally went to the emergency room of the nearest large hospital (the only thing that was open!) and hoped for the best. Luckily, it wasn't busy. We got tested soon and both came up negative. My wife and son also got tested last Monday and came up negative. I guess my daughter was the only unlucky one...for now at least.
  • I usually like a good thunderstorm. I also like rainy days. However, we've been having high-intensity thunderstorms coupled with torrential rains almost every day for the past week! It's starting to get a bit old. It's bad enough that I have to keep shutting down my computer and disconnecting my modem when I have so many things to do. When it really gets going, the thunder can make the house shake. We can hear light fixtures and appliances buzz and crackle along with nearby lightning strikes. And that RAIN... Yesterday I was coming back from Ye Olde Academy when, about a kilometer from home, marble-sized raindrops started falling at a lazy pace. Plop...plop...plop...plop...plop. Then the thunder and lightning started. Five minutes later, as I was pulling into my driveway, it turned into one of the heaviest gully-washers I've ever seen. The ditch next to my parking spot was overflowing after only a few minutes. The road was a creek. Meanwhile, close-range lightning strikes continued to flash and bang all around me. I decided to stay in my car and wait it out. Twenty minutes later, with no sign of it letting up, my wife came driving in from a supermarket run. Sighing, I jumped out of my car to help her carry bags...and was completely drenched in a couple of seconds. We had another storm like that today. I was already home at the time, but this time our new bathroom's roof started leaking badly. The fishpond out front overflowed, too, sending my daughter out in pursuit of a couple of would-be runaways. I didn't close the open upstairs window in time, either, meaning wind-driven rain got blasted into the bedroom for at least the third time in the past week. (No, I won't keep the window shut. It gets too hot up there otherwise!) The main path through the yard is turning into a gully. I can only imagine what havoc this is all wreaking on farmers in this area.
  • I finally decided to make up for the grimness and emptiness of this summer by getting myself a present. One thing I'd long thought of getting for Studio Moodio is a MIDI controller keyboard. (Until now I've either used one of my keyboard synths or programmed notes using the mouse and computer keyboard.) An ordinary one wouldn't do, either; I wanted a full, 88-key type with piano-touch keys. I finally settled on getting a Yamaha KX8, which is a very sweet-looking machine (AND available on Amazon Japan, meaning no need to drive all the way to one of those music shops). There were only a few problems, a couple of which had to do with its size and bulk. I couldn't put it on my existing synth rack, and it was too big to stow in a corner or under a bed. Then I got to looking around and thinking. For basic MIDI programming, a more typical MIDI keyboard controller would be just as good if not better. And as for the 88-key piano-touch keyboard, I recently had a clerk at a music store tell me that, if all I really wanted was the keyboard, it would make far more sense to get a portable digital piano like the Casio Privia, since it had the basic features I wanted without the fluff, could be used in a wider variety of situations, and COST A LOT LESS. I finally wound up getting a Privia PX-120 at a local home electronics store and ordering an Edirol PC-80 from Amazon and, after all the discounts were figured in, paid probably about the same as I would have for the KX8 and a new synth rack. Yes, now I have two keyboards to have to store (and will probably unload the old Korg DSS-1 to make room...after finally just having found an English manual for it), but I'm quite happy about the acquisition. The PC-80 came TODAY, and I was just playing around with it on this computer. about speeding up my music arranging/composing by a factor of ten! I seriously wonder why the f*** I didn't buy one of these things AGES ago! Fortunately my wife hasn't killed me (yet...).
Hey...Japan's softball team just won the Olympic gold medal! They beat the U.S.A.! NO ONE has EVER beaten the U.S.A. in Olympic softball! But I think I'll save all my Olympic testimonials and diatribes for another post.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

A Song I Had to Make

Things are gradually winding back to a routine here at the old homestead. No, things are not back to normal. They probably won't be for a long time if ever. But at least we're getting a handle on things.

The various funeral and mourning requirements are still going on, with visits to the graveyard every day and another ritual at the temple scheduled for tomorrow (and two weeks after that, and two weeks after that...). It's touching the amount of attention given to the deceased by the bereaved, but it sure makes closure difficult.

In the meantime I managed to complete another song. I'd been toying with the melody for a while but had been too busy with other things to do anything with it. This time I decided to make some time. It's my second all-digital work using Cakewalk Sonar 7 digital music production software and my Roland Sonic Cell. Things went a lot more smoothly this time than they did with "Perspective", my last work (finished last June) since I finally have the settings right and the learning curve mostly overcome. I was able just to concentrate on the creative aspect for the most part.

The song is called "Promise", and that's exactly what it is, a promise to my wife. I started with the rhythm parts using MIDI programming and added mandolin, guitars, and bass. I thought about having complex, layered vocals at first, but I stuck with a single, raw, blue and gritty vocal track that seems more appropriate anyway (though the main reason I did it that way is that my throat has been so raw and gritty these days...most likely because of all that incense I have to breathe every day). Anyway, give it a listen and tell me what you think.

UPDATE - I've added a new track, an instrumental called "BLUE Taxi". It was just a spontaneous idea that popped out of my muse, and it was a lot of fun to make. It's definitely a much needed breather from the understandable grimness at home. Enjoy!

More details on my Minstrel's Muse site.


Monday, August 04, 2008

The Time of Parting

The mourners continued to come followed soon afterward by the first relatives arriving to help. For the entire day on the 29th my MIL's body was left in state on cushions looking for all the world like she was only sleeping...except for the cloth covering her face. (There were also dry ice packs hidden under her blanket since embalming is not practiced in Japan.) We kept ourselves busy mainly cleaning up and clearing space (i.e. what the relatives had tried to do earlier until MIL had told us to stop them) so that we would be ready to accommodate somewhere around a dozen people. A lot of that work, thankfully enough, was left to the relatives so that my wife and I could attend to the steady stream of mourners.

On the 30th the businesslike young man from the funeral hall arrived with a truckload of gear. It used to be that the body of the deceased was left in a normal sleeping position until the funeral. Things have changed a bit in modern times, particularly on account of the hot, muggy summer. (No complaints from me!) MIL's body was placed in a dry-ice-packed casket with a trapdoor over her head so mourners could still speak to her. An altar was also set up in front so the mourners could place incense and offer a prayer. White curtains were placed to cover up the motley assortment of bookshelves and chests along the walls.

mil cask2

On the left side of the picture you can see the brown case of MIL's taishogoto (大正琴), a musical instrument based on the koto but fingered by pressing keys. (See an example video here. MIL's is a practice type like this one and doesn't have a wide body like the concert types in the video.)

A memorial "hanawa", or flower wheel, was also placed in front of the house.


It used to be that funerals were held at the household of the deceased, so it would end up surrounded by hanawa brought by well-wishers. Now that funeral halls have become more common, hanawa are usually placed there instead of at the household. That's why there was only one here.

In addition to helping greet and tend to the arriving mourners while at the same time looking after our guests and tidying up the place, I got to provide a taxi service between our house and the Suigo-Itako Bus Terminal, about a twenty-minute drive away in Itako. I don't know how many times I made the trip in my BLUE RAV4, but it was a lot. The highway bus is, after all, the most convenient way to get here from Tokyo, and vice versa.

On the evening of the 30th we had the obligatory neighborhood meeting. Every time there is a death in the neighborhood, each household is required to send at least one representative to a meeting to discuss the schedule of the funeral events and also decide who will do what. (I have already participated in several.) In most cases the funeral happens within a few days of the death. For a number of reasons, however, it wound up being delayed a little. That did raise a few eyebrows, but everyone understood. There was also none of the usual difficulty assigning roles; so many of our neighbors are actually relatives that the most demanding roles were snapped up immediately. It really helped. The meeting went smoothly, and the real planning got underway without any bumps.

The 31st and 1st were both pretty much more of the same. Everyone expected the tide of mourners to be ebbing, but it kept right up fairly constantly. In fact, at one point a whole group of ladies who had been fellow members of the taishokoto club my MIL had belonged to showed up at once. That was a touching display of loyalty, but it was understandably hard for my wife. I was thankful we had aunts and cousins on standby to take care of the traditional female roles in such situations. Meanwhile, more relatives continued to come. As before, the overwhelming majority were from my FIL's amazing family spread all over the country. A few of MIL's siblings finally arrived, some of them apparently after a bit of coaxing, and we had to step lightly to prevent the event from turning into a very unfortunate family feud. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed. In the evening it was all beginning to seem like more of a giant double-family reunion than a funeral.

The 2nd of August was when things really got started. In the late afternoon we all changed into our black suits and relocated to the funeral hall for the first of two funeral services, this being the "Tsuya" (通夜 - literally meaning "night of passage"). The Tsuya is a relatively small and low-key event attended mainly by family members and very close friends, although it is also common for people to come if they can't make it to the main funeral the next day. The priest who led the event was the one from our local temple, an old friend of the neighborhood and the family. There was a lot of ritual, a lot of chanting and ringing of bells (which is always very intense), and finally people coming up to the altar one by one to offer incense and a prayer.

After the Tsuya was finished, we gathered in the funeral hall's dining hall for a "purification" (i.e. a drinking party). Then the plan was for two of the uncles, one from each extended family, to remain at the funeral hall overnight to keep vigil. Meanwhile, the rest of the relatives (those that weren't cutting and running, at least) were to be led to a hotel in Itako for the night. Once again I had been fingered to be a guide and a BLUE taxi driver. That HAD BEEN the plan, at least. Once again, things changed at random, and I was suddenly told by my FIL that I had to stay at the hall overnight. I was pretty irritated, to say the least, since I hadn't made any preparations to do so. I wound up rushing home, changing, throwing together my overnight bag, grabbing a sleeping mat, and hurrying back to the hall so I could assume my vigil duties. No sooner did I get there than I was told my wife was going to be joining me there later. Not long after that I got a phone call from my wife telling me FIL had "commanded" me to go pick him up at the hotel in Itako, to which he had accompanied his relatives. Forcing my temper down, I drove to Itako...weaving through a festival, of all things...and arrived at the hotel only to find that FIL had apparently flipped out and taken a taxi home alone.

Fortunately, the vigil was quiet and uneventful.

The next day was the real funeral, called a "sōgi" (葬儀) or "o-sōshiki" (御葬式) in Japanese. It started out very early in the morning with the arrival of the four neighbors who would be the rikushaku (陸尺 - perhaps both "pallbearer" and "gravedigger" would be the best translations, though either term would be an understatement!). (Incidentally, I've never been able to find a dictionary entry for "rikushaku" anywhere, so it may be a local term.) They then began their own ritual preparations.

(As a side note, I was a rikushaku once. It happened a couple of years ago. I volunteered to do it when one of my cooler neighbors lost his mother...and no one else would do it. It was very interesting, if a bit awkward. I did my best, and it seemed to improve my standing in the neighborhood in some ways...while perhaps hurting it in others. I also arrived at the meeting early that morning only to have the others laughingly point out that I had a flat tire. They then eagerly changed it for me, making a big deal of the fact that my spare tire was new and my tire jack unused. I have always wondered about that whole thing, since my tire hadn't been flat the night before and frankly had no reason to BE flat. Ever since then, whenever there is a funeral in the neighborhood, and I'm at the prep meeting, the men fall over each other in the race to volunteer to be rikushaku. The funny thing is that they never did that before I did it. I can't help having a sneaking suspicion that, although I get along with my neighbors well for the most part, someone didn't want me, a gaijin, to be a rikushaku for one of the neighborhood families...)

Some relatives had stayed at the homestead instead of at the hotel, so we had to feed them breakfast. We also had to deal with the arrival of still more relatives, meaning still more BLUE taxi service...and some of them showed up without funeral dress, which meant a mad rush of trying to find things that fit them and doing some speed-shopping when we couldn't. We managed to get everyone to the funeral hall more or less just in time.

The main funeral was definitely a massive event. The crowd not only filled the hall but packed the lobby and extended out the doors into the parking lot. (Considering it was 36 degrees centigrade [97 degrees Fahrenheit] out there and humid enough to be misty, I felt sorry for all those black-suited well-wishers out there!) It is a testimony to my MIL's standing in our area that, overall, including the people who stopped by just long enough to offer condolences and a prayer before the funeral started, more than seven hundred people attended. Considering that every single one of them proceeded to the altar to place incense and pray, the funeral took a long time. (Considering that, as son-in-law, I had to bow to each and every one of them TWICE, my legs and back were starting to get pretty sore by the time it was done.)

The funeral was also unusual in that it was conducted by two priests, the first time I'd ever seen that. The priest from our neighborhood presided, and a much younger one, possibly one in training, assisted. There had been some controversy about that at the planning meeting; the idea of having two priests conducting a funeral seemed odd to some and downright inappropriate to others. However, watching it in action, it all seemed natural. It was no different from Christian church services I'd seen with one presiding and one associate minister. The younger one assisted the senior one and took some of the workload off of his shoulders. Considering the recent hard schedule of our local priest, I'm sure he welcomed the help.

The last part of the funeral was the most difficult. The casket was wheeled out from its place in the altar and opened. Then, after the female master of ceremonies read farewell speeches written by my children (which had everyone in tears...especially my children), people were invited to come up and give their final farewells, placing flowers and/or messages in the casket. Then my FIL was given MIL's ihai (位牌 - memorial tablet), my wife was handed a small, wooden altar tray, and I was handed the large photograph of my MIL that, until then, had been the centerpiece of the altar. We then marched in a procession out of the funeral hall, the presiding priest followed by the casket carried by the four rikushaku who were in turn followed by the associate priest and then everyone else.


This is my MIL's ihai. The small writing on the right and left sides are the date of her death. The big writing in the middle is her death name, i.e. the name given to her soul by the priest. The large photo behind it is what I carried in the procession.

The casket was placed in a hearse, which my wife and FIL boarded. I got on a bus with the kids and everyone else planning to attend the final stage of the funeral...the trip to the crematorium. Once there, there was one last ritual of prayer and farewells, and then we watched as the casket was loaded into the oven. After that we were led to a hall where we waited while eating and drinking (not that I and my family had much appetite) until the cremation was finished. Then we were summoned to the next stage.

Up to that point there had been nothing new for me as I had already participated in a number of funerals here, almost always as a staff representative of the neighborhood. However, the next step was something I'd often heard about but had never witnessed first hand. We were to place my MIL's remaining bone fragments in her burial urn. Basically, all of the participants doubled up, and then each pair used special chopsticks to pick up a single bone fragment in tandem (apparently to make sure it didn't get dropped) and place it in the urn. We were told to leave the head for the director to take care of himself. Anyway, once everyone there had had a turn, the director carefully lifted each piece of the head, held it up for us to see with some explanation, and placed it in the urn, with the very last piece being the top of the skull. Just as the director was about to seal the urn, however, my daughter noticed that there was one little piece left, hiding under the edge of the rack. It was a tooth. Occurrences like that are never taken lightly here, and it made everyone wonder.

The urn was sealed, placed in a box, and wrapped with care. My FIL was handed the ihai again, my wife was given the little altar tray, and then the director started to hand me the urn.

Immediately one of the rikushaku, a relative of my MIL, began to protest quietly but vehemently. He said it was totally inappropriate for me to carry the urn and insisted that it should be left to him. The director politely told him to go bite himself and handed the urn to me. I proceeded to bear my MIL's earthly remains until we got to the temple. Once there the same rikushaku asked me politely if I'd let him carry the urn. FIL said he thought it best, so I politely complied. We then had the final funeral rite in the temple, performed a sort of ritual of passage out in front, and then marched up to the grave. The rikushaku busied themselves there preparing the grave itself, wooden spiritual markers, and temporary decorations that will be there for about a month.

MIL grave

This is the way the gravesite looks now. The bouquets, the wooden altar tray, and the bamboo and paper decoration to the left of the tombstone will be removed after a little while. I think the large wooden post with religious inscriptions on it may also be temporary, though that might be left up to the family. My in-laws purchased the tombstone and had the grave ready years ago (since space is at a premium, especially in temple graveyards). I regret that it is being put to use so soon.

There was another "purification" party afterward, and then the various relatives and friends scattered to the winds to return to their various corners of the Land of the Rising Sun. Things are far from over, however. There will be another funeral rite next month and another one next summer. As I said before, care of the dead is serious business in these islands.

MIL's presence is also still very near. We still have a memorial altar bearing her ihai, photograph, various offerings, and an incense burner in a prominent place in FIL's house. People are still showing up from time to time to offer their prayers and condolences. I've heard it said that, in Asia, people live with the dead all the time. I'm finally beginning to understand that. But I also understand that there is now a MOUNTAIN of work to be done...