Monday, October 23, 2006

Meeting Rumi's Dead Parents

I'm trying to catch up....I'm sorry for the delay! I'm headed to Hong Kong in about two weeks to see Fearless Husband, and I am so excited! I'll take lots of photos, and promise to post them and our adventures there before the end of November! We're hopeful that he will be home for Thanksgiving, and again for Christmas.

Back in June, I had one of the most foreign experiences I've ever had in my life. Miyuki invited me to join her on a trip to a temple with Rumi, a 12-year-old 7th grade student. Rumi’s parents are both dead, and she had asked her teacher, Miyuki, to join her as she went to say prayers at the temple where her parents "sleep".

Rumi is shy and awkward and just darling--very eager to please. She and her 14-year-old brother are being shuffled back and forth between two aunts and an uncle. No one wants them, so they spend one month with one relative, then get sent for one month with another relative.

The brother is really going down the juvenile delinquent road, according to Miyuki, but this little girl is still bright and bouncy. She doesn't show her sorrow at all...but I'm afraid in a couple of years she could become a very hard case. Her mom died of cancer three years ago, and then a year ago her dad died of a heart attack from "overwork and stress." I want to adopt them both! But I don't think FH would jump for joy at the idea of adopting a 12 year old and a 14 year old, neither of whom speak English!

Going to the temple was not sad at all though. The temple itself was simply a two-story, relatively non-descript building on the main road. The only thing that distinguished it from its neighboring shops was a particularly fine tile roof. We found parking (amazing!) and walked up the stairs to the front door on the second floor. Inside, we took off our shoes and put on leather slippers before moving through the main temple room, with a beautiful gold-leafed statue of Buddha at the altar area at the front of the room. We went down some narrow stairs, past a photocopy machine and some boxes and stacked newspapers (like an office storage room) into a plain room with fluorescent lights and a wooden floor…very much as if we’d walked through an American church and into the fellowship hall in the basement!

The room might have been a fellowship hall, or a classroom or an office, except for the fact that it is the resting place for the remains of hundreds of people. Shiny black cabinets trimmed in gold line the walls and march in long rows down the length of the room. The bottom part of each cabinet is a closed cupboard; the top is an open shelf/alcove, lined in gleaming red and gold paint. Each shelf has a little tiny golden altar, some silk flowers, a little book with the names of the deceased written in it in flowing and beautiful calligraphy (each person receives a new name at death), a little dish for burning incense, and a little dish for offerings. The bottom closed cabinet holds the ashes of the dead for that family. All Japanese are cremated. There is not enough land for them to be buried whole. Lots of containers of ashes can fit in each cabinet, so the family stays together even after death!

Some offering dishes had cans of beer for the deceased, one shelf had soda and candy--Miyuki said it was for a child who’d died. A modern disposable lighter was placed beside each incense bowl. Rumi lit some incense, looped the prayer beads over her folded hands and said a prayer. Then Miyuki said a prayer, and then I said a prayer...all silently. The whole time, when they weren’t praying, they were both laughing and talking in normal, happy voices.

Miyuki said I should "introduce myself to Rumi's parents" when I said my prayer. It was not the way Americans act at cemeteries, full of sorrow and longing. Instead, it was as if we were really visiting her parents, and I felt as if my prayer should have begun “It’s very nice to meet you!” Then they both laughed and talked about how surprised Rumi's parents were going to be to meet an American. It was very upbeat, as if her parents were on a higher plane, but they were ghosts, not far away in heaven—as if her dad would enjoy being offered a cold beer, and her mother would be ducking her head in shyness to meet an American.

During the three day Obon holidays in August, Miyuki said that Rumi would host a memorial service for her parents in the main part of the temple...but people here do not go to regular services. There are no "weekly services", just funerals and memorials at the temples, weddings at the shrines, and visitors to both temples and shrines whenever anyone feels the need to pray for strength, hope or luck, or for the spirits of the departed. During Obon, families make trips to the resting places of their ancestor's ashes...some in the city, some far out in the country. The spirits of departed ancestors are invited "home" and offerings are given of new rice and other food. Many people picnic at the outdoor cemetaries, eating what they've first offered their ancestors. At the end of the three day festival, lanterns are lit and floated down the river in huge numbers, to "light the way back to the underworld" so no ghosts stick around to bother the living. The river filled with lanterns in the twilight is an amazing sight.

I felt so odd in the fellowship-hall-mausoleum, like I should whisper, and I was embarrassed that I had bare feet in the provided leather slippers, because I’d worn sandals to the temple. Miyuki said bare feet were no problem, but 99% of the people I've seen have had socks. The young women wear knee-highs peeking out at the tops of their stiletto-heeled boots, and everyone seems to wear socks or stockings. I'm going to start carrying a pair of socks or knee-highs in my handbag for when I wear sandals. I wonder if it's sort of too casual to go barefooted, for health reasons, cleanliness, etc. The traditional Japanese outfit includes tabi socks with the zori--the wooden thong shoes like clunky flip-flops. Tabi socks are like mitten socks, with a single divider between the toes for the thong, and they button up on the inside of the ankle.

Miyuki and Rumi were giggling and laughing, and didn’t seem to think that my bare feet were a problem at all. Miyuki asked if I wanted to take a photo, which really surprised me. It turned out that made Rumi very proud, as she was the "owner" of her parents’ altar, and could give me permission to photograph her parents “home”. So I'm thrilled to have photos of that...but of course I didn't take photos of the Buddha in the temple. (That’s frowned upon.) They even directed me as to what photos I should take, so I have one photo of Rumi's parents' shrine, one photo of a line of little altars, a photo of Miyuki with Rumi in front of the altars, and one of me and Rumi ("Say Cheese!" insisted Miyuki in English!)

My heart goes out to that little girl because of her current situation of being tossed from aunt to uncle once a month...but her laughter and pleasure at “introducing me” to her parents seemed somehow healthier than our American obsession with grieving for many years after death.

More soon...

Monday, October 02, 2006

The Great Tree Massacre

Now that things have eased off a little bit with my freelance work, and Fearless Husband is back at sea for a while, I hope to get caught up with some adventures. Please forgive the long delays! Current news: FH is on his Fall Cruise. He has a very full schedule, as the LPO for his department, work as a career counselor for younger Sailors, a college course, and work towards several certifications. If things work out, I hope to meet him in Hong Kong for a few days. Life's good here for me, though I miss my husband! I'm now co-president of the ship's Family Support Group, which is keeping me busy. I'm still doing freelance work, and working part time for the base newspaper. I've also been asked to help the Officers Spouse Club with a brochure and some publicity for a "Samurai Day" they're putting on. I hope to spend some time this fall at Miyuki's school, volunteering with her classes and learning from them as well!

Here's an adventure from earlier in the summer that I've meant to write about, but kept putting off. (Notice first of all, in the photo above, the amount of greenery to the left of the house--the little bit you can see of the trees in my tiny yard--and also the shaggy look of the pine tree in front of the house. Do me a favor and don't notice the terrible view of me in that photo!)

When we signed our lease for our house here in Japan, it was spelled out that we would be responsible for the weeds and sporadic grass in our tiny little yard, but that our landlord would be responsible for the trees. As a matter of fact, we were very specifically prohibited from doing anything at all to the trees.

Our yard is quite small. On the side of the house, we have a driveway shared with the neighbor directly behind us--the driveway ends in our neighbor's tiny carport. One side of the driveway is the high wall that supports our next door neighbor's house and yard, keeping it from tumbling down the hill onto us. On the other side of the drive is a stretch of gravel along the side of our house, that is (ha ha ha ha) supposedly big enough for two cars.

Beside the front gate from the street to our front door is a 3 x 3' area with several large rocks, two tiny azalea bushes, and one very Japanese pine tree. On the other side of the front door are three little boxwoods. One can walk on a very narrow sidewalk between the camellia-lined fence and the front of our house to get to the little fenced yard (our house is L-shaped, and the yard is in the crook of the L). The yard itself is perhaps 10 x 15'. Behind the house is enough room for one not-very-wide person to walk...and this area is also gravelled. So, I don't have much yardwork to worry about.

Our teeny yard has five teeny azalea bushes and five small trees. When we moved in, the camellias along the fence were in bloom. They seemed a little severely trimmed to my American eyes, but I figured they'd fill out eventually. The trees were not very tall at all, but were pretty bushy. In America, I don't think I've ever thought about trimming back the trees in any house I've ever lived in, and I probably would not have thought twice about trimming these trees.

But we're in Japan.

In June, on the days it didn't rain, if I thought about the trees at all, it was to be grateful for the shade and privacy we were afforded by their bushy leaves. Then everything changed.

I got a call from the housing office, to let me know the tree trimmers would be coming to my house in a few days. I thought to myself "gee, I should do something about the weeds and grass in the yard before they come..." then promptly forgot about it. So I was a little surprised one morning to open my bedroom curtains and find two elderly gentlemen in my yard in gardening uniforms, complete with hats, boots and white gloves (almost all the Japanese uniforms seem to come with white gloves, including flagmen in the streets).

I was fascinated to watch these men at work. They plucked every single blade of grass and every weed by hand from both the yard and from every square inch of gravel around the house. The trees were trimmed to a most astonishing my American eyes, they had been destroyed. The two men spent two days plucking grass blades and carefully trimming the trees from their aluminum tripod ladders. They bagged every leaf in small, neat transparent plastic bags, and trimmed every pruned limb into 30cm lengths before tying them into neat bundles. I offered both men water, and exchanged bows and "ohayou gosaimasu" (good morning) with them several times, peeking out often to watch them at work, and to observe their short, formal and deliberate tea and lunch breaks. They both worked with great dignity and a slow but unstoppable sense of purpose.

When they finished, they swept the bare dirt smooth with homemade-looking twig brooms, bowed to me one last time, and left with the bags of leaves and bundles of sticks. (If they'd left me the bundles and bags, I would have had to space them out when taking them to the trash pickup, each of us being allowed to leave only two bags of leaves and two bundles of sticks per trash day.)

It took me a while to get used to the newly nude trees, and the huge increase in sunlight in my little yard. But the trees have leafed out quickly and well, and look great now. I'm almost dreading how bushy they will get before my tree men come back next June! I've learned since they left that the trees in my yard, especially the pine tree in the front, have been trained over years to their current shapes, and are quite valuable. They must be trimmed in order to maintain their shapes (like my front pine tree) and also to keep them small (in the case of the trees in my yard). Since I am perched on a pretty steep hillside (like many houses here) and also cheek-by-jowl with my neighbors (like almost all houses here), it's important to keep the trees in check so their roots don't push through the retaining walls and their limbs don't threaten my home or my neighbor's homes.

After watching Typhoon Shanshan hit us head-on, and observing the up-to-90 mph winds from the windows of my house, I am very grateful for the Great Tree Massacre. Sure, I saw a few little branches and a lot of leaves on the ground throughout my neighborhood after the big winds, but I saw no downed trees, no big limbs on the ground, and very little storm damage. Bet there won't be much damage if we have an ice storm, either.

I think I'll remember this lesson!