Tetsu and I are going off for the weekend to Morioka, the town where I first worked when I came to Japan and where Tetsu and I met some 34 years ago. Though I visited Morioka three years ago, Tetsu hasn't been back for nearly five years. Our purpose? I guess to go visit our family grave.
That sounds pretty weird in English, but in Japan this is a very large and important part of the culture. Ohaka mairi, visiting a grave, is a regular activity and taking care of the family grave entails many responsibilities. Family graves are handed down from eldest son to eldest son and many generations of ancestors' ashes will be set inside a family grave. After a person passes on and funeral services are over, there is another memorial service 49 days later ending the mourning period. The family will visit the grave together. Another memorial service and grave visiting will be held a year later, and then three years later and then 7 (I'm getting fuzzy here.... I'm not really sure of the dates...) and these regular services will continue until the 33rd year after a person's death.
But that's not all. According to Buddhist teachings, spirits will return to the family grave during Obon (festivals held in summer) and also in autumn (just a few weeks ago). At these times also families will come from far away to go grave visiting and also to have a nice gathering with living members! Some of my friends make it a point to visit their family grave monthly though most people limit visits to 3 or 4 times a year.
In our case, Tetsu is the second son of the family so he does not get involved with taking care of the family grave; his older brother does that. And because Tetsu is Christian, we chose to have our own family grave made in a Christian part of a Morioka cemetery. I'm afraid we had to make a decision about graves early in our marriage when our eldest daughter passed away when she was only a couple of months old. Our daughter's grave is in Morioka and eventually Tetsu and my ashes will be interred there also. (I doubt Takumi will take over the traditional role of caring for his family's grave... but you never know!)
It has never been too important to Tetsu and me that we visit the cemetery regularly (obviously not since we haven't been there in over three years.) A lot of that is because as Christians, we have always considered our eternal home to be in heaven... not in a grave someplace. And my own American family had never had the custom of visiting graves so I've been slack in my Japanese-wife role. My own grandparents were buried in the Midwest and my mother has NEVER been back to her parents' graves in Indiana.
The custom of caring for a family grave has its own headaches... paying temple priests for yearly prayers, going to the cemetery and washing the stone or weeding the area, burning incense and bringing flowers. I have talked to ladies who have said that they cannot ever become Christian because they are married to the eldest son in a family and therefore they have the duty to care for the Buddhist family grave. I don't really understand this logic but I know it is a real concern for people trying to make a decision for Christ.
Not too long ago I was telling Tetsu's mother that Takumi had suggested that someday Tetsu and I might want to consider retiring to America. I don't think so!
And Obaachan's face clouded over...
"Oh dear. You couldn't go to America could you? Because that would mean that you would have to leave the baby's ashes (our daughter's) all alone in Japan. How sad."
I assured Tetsu's mother that we weren't thinking of leaving Japan but didn't mention that we hardly got up to Morioka to visit the grave even while living here. Obaachan sat and thought about our family grave awhile and then brightened visibly.
"Are the baby's ashes in an urn? Oh, then you could take the urn with you when you retire to America! The problem is solved. I am so happy!"
I just thought it interesting how the Japanese culture revolves so much around the grave and ancestors and family responsibilities.
To make a long story short (it's not short yet!) Tetsu and I are leaving tomorrow morning to drive 6 hours up to Morioka where we will visit the family grave (and we are taking water and buckets and scrub brushes with us to wash it down.) And then we will go to a lovely hot spring resort and spend a relaxing weekend! Maybe a visit with friends, maybe a little sightseeing. We will be back late Sunday night. The cats will be fed by two neighbor girls. Choco will go stay at the vet's for three days. SOOOO.... no blogging for awhile. I'll report in when we get back!