Friday, June 27, 2008

Lighting the Way Home

Here is another vignette from our lives here in Japan. There is so much more to tell you, but not enough time to tell it in! More to come, of course. Please forgive the blurry photos, as I was dealing with the dark, and my camera was NOT behaving. (Of course, I felt flash photography would not be appropriate in the least!) As always, click on the photos for larger images.

Last summer, when we got back to Japan after Annette's funeral, my Japanese friend Miyuki felt it was imperative to take Fearless Husband to the Obon festival. She was very serious about it, and insisted that we join her. For three days every summer, the Japanese believe the spirits of family and friends who have passed on come to visit for a time, especially those who have departed in the past year. In other parts of Japan, Obon is in July, but in a few towns, Sasebo included, Obon is always in August.

Family members put out special sugar cakes molded into beautiful flower shapes, rice cakes, various fruits, and liquor for the visiting spirits. On the third night, there is a HUGE festival downtown. One particular part of the festival is specific to Nagasaki prefecture (of which we are a part) and is a tradition that comes from China. One may pay a token amount to purchase a paper lantern to honor the spirit of the deceased. The lanterns are square, and delicate, in white and yellow and pink with lotus flower blossoms and messages for world peace printed on them.

One buys a lantern, writes messages to the departed on the lantern (in past days, I'm sure elegant calligraphy brushes were used, but in this case, there was a multitude of Sharpies available). The lantern is handed to the first in a line of twelve Buddhist monk apprentices in black pants, white dress shirts and sober ties, lined up on a floating dock that juts out into the river. The apprentices pass the lantern down the line, and the last man in line carefully sets the lantern onto the river to float away to the nearby ocean, using a long pole to ensure they don't clump up, or drift back to shore. The view of hundreds and hundreds of flickering paper lanterns drifting down the winding river to the sea in the gathering darkness is both poignant and beautiful.

Miyuki purchased a lantern for Annette, as her tribute to the mother of her friend, and FH wrote messages to his mother before handing it to the acolytes to set adrift. We stood together, watching the lantern join hundreds of others on its journey to the sea, and I think we both felt a sense of closure within our sorrow. We watched until Annette's lantern was out of sight.

Many of the Japanese around us were dressed in traditional kimono, including the children. Others were in very casual clothes. There is sorrow, and some people and children are quietly crying as they prepare their lanterns...others are purchasing and eating street food like chicken skewers, squid-on-a-stick, roasted ears of corn, and snow-cones from the various vendors lined up along the riverside, and laughter drifts through the crowds. It's a celebration of both life and death, of honoring family, and of letting go. For many, it seems to bring closure -- a final goodbye.

After the lanterns are set afloat, people make their way to the main streets, to watch the "floats" go by. The floats are large platforms carried by teams of men and women in matching happi coats, with a roofed structure on top, and many large lanterns hanging under the roof. From what I understood at the time, most of the floats are specifically dedicated to the owners of various corporations who have passed away in the past year (or years?), and the bearers are workers from the companies. Glittering signs are carried on poles to escort each float, and Miyuki told us the signs specify the name of the company. She explained that years ago, the wealthy and powerful (the elite, the movers and shakers, etc.) were able to pay for such tribute, but now only corporations can afford to have the floats and bearers, signs and fireworks. Each float is carried (sometimes for miles) through the streets of Sasebo, to come together in a large municipal sports field next to the city library.

There, under brilliant floodlights (think night baseball game), each incredibly heavy platform is brought to the center, one at a time, and then jerked and turned and "danced" in circles as the teams shout and yell, firecrackers explode and columns of heavy smoke rise to the skies. This supposedly scares away any evil spirits who might be hanging around the spirit of the executive. The various teams vie to dance the fastest, shake their float the hardest, and make the most noise. A small but steady stream of townspeople come, each delivering a football-shaped straw package containing the various offerings (rice cakes, fruits, etc.) that have been sitting out for three days for the ancestral spirits. The pile of straw bundles grows and grows, to epic proportions as each family brings their offerings. These "footballs" will be burned in a HUGE bonfire after the event itself, to send the offerings up in smoke to heaven, carrying the offerings back to the spirit world.

As one enters the field, whether carrying a float, bearing a straw bundle, or just coming to see the spectacle, one may stop at a white tent canopy with roof and three walls, to pray. Under the canopy are many bouquets of flowers and various offerings, and a lovely statue of Buddha. Three priests kneel and bow, chanting and swaying without cease, and the public may pause outside the encircling fence to pray and to light incense and candles and place them in the sand-filled troughs on the fence top.

Though the entire thing was very foreign to our eyes, it was also very beautiful. There was a sense of kinship, of universal humanity as people recognized the inevitability of death, the pain of loss, the joy of living, and the hope of the world to come.


Mary Witzl said...

Carolie, this is so beautifully written! I've always wanted to see the Obon festival in Nagasaki with all of those floating lanterns, and you have described it so well.

I've always wondered why the floats had company names on them; I figured they must be the sponsors, but I never asked! There are probably Japanese people who could read this and learn from it.

エミリ said...

Wow! That was awesome! I felt like I was there. It must have been so great to go with Miyuki-san and have her explain everything you were seeing. You have learned quite a bit from her these past few years. Tell her I said hello.
Love ya!
anata no itoko,

Anonymous said...

Hey Carolie,
Gpa/Gma Brekke had your post printed out when I was there this last week. They were very proud to show your story to Chris/Jo/Tilford and I. It was pretty cute how Gpa had each picture blown up and printed out...he's so funny with the computer.

Gma was not feeling very well and we're hoping that she's getting better today. They think her pain meds for the shoulder were making her feel ill? They seemed happy to spend time with Jannah though.

Still hard to believe Annette is gone. I think being so far away makes it seem like its never happened. We've been praying a lot for all of the Vegas bunch lately.

Do you plan on visiting this summmer? We miss you both and hope to chat soon. Great post again, look forward to reading more! Love, Susie