It’s currently Obon in Japan, a few days dedicated to honouring your ancestors. People often go back to their hometowns to visit cemeteries and pray for relatives who have passed away. They bring flowers, wash the grave stones and burn incense. For many salarymen in Japan, Obon and New Years is the only time of the year they have off work.
This weekend, I went along with some friends for their ‘grave visit’ at Tamareien, the largest cemetery in Tokyo. At 128 hectares, it is insanely massive, and you need a car and a map and possibly a compass to get around. It is literally a village full of thousands of tiny, very expensive houses. Grave sites cost between $20,000 and $60,000. There are many famous historical figures buried here, like war commanders, politicians, writers, company presidents and sportsmen, as well as regular folk. And with a road lined with 1,600 cherry blossoms trees, it’s actually a pretty popular place to visit!
At the entrance of Tamareien is a hall called Mitama-dō which houses the spirits of all the dead as well as the actual ashes of thousands of bodies. The ashes are stored in cases that resemble fancy school lockers. In the centre, a cone-shaped water feature points up to a big chandelier-like skylight. The space is very minimal but peaceful. Around the walls, beautiful tile mosaics hide a spiral path where the cases are stored. Access to this area is limited to when family members first store the ashes. Each year after that, they have to stand at the base and pray facing the direction of the relative.
Obon isn’t just a solemn affair, but many towns hold lively festivals. Some famous events are the Tokushima Awa Odori, Kyoto Daimonji, Nagasaki Spirit Boat Parade and Okinawan Eisa. Maybe next year I’ll plan a little better and go to one of these!