Getting Ready for Obon

Next week is Obon, a three day festival honoring the dead and one’s ancestors. Because this is the first obon (hatsubon) after Jiro’s father’s death, there are many things that we need to do and prepare. I am somewhat familiar with all of the Obon traditions, but I don’t feel at all prepared to deal with this as the daughter-in-law.

Jiro’s mom is understandably anxious to take care of everything properly, but because of her age and physical decline is unable to remember exactly what needs to be done and can’t do the things she remembers how to do. So this weekend I agreed to help her “set up” the altar in the house and put together the lanterns. She eager to get it all done and is impatient with me as I struggle to read the instructions and figure out which pieces belong to which lantern and the order with which to put them together. It isn’t helpful when she opens up two other boxes and spreads all the pieces out across the tatami floor. After two hours I finally had cleaned the altar, set up and “decorated” a small table in front of the altar and assembled 6 lanterns.

obon lanterns, gifts from relatives and associates

obon lanterns, gifts from relatives and associates

We still have two more lanterns to construct, but they need to be suspended from the ceiling, so I need to buy some hooks and string. I am sure that may “rules” were broken and our altar doesn’t look right..but it’s the best an old Japanese gramma and her American daughter-in-law can do.

altar

altar set-up

Briefly, the three day tradition is to honor the return of the souls to this world. Prior to Obon, home altars are decorated to welcome the souls. Relatives and friends send lanterns as gifts, some include wreaths of food items or towels.

the "flowers" in the center are made of handtowels

the "flowers" in the center are made of handtowels

Other people send boxes of things such as juice, beer, instant coffee. On the second day of Obon, many neighborhoods hold outdoor bon-odori (bon dance) to celebrate. On the final day, people construct small boats and fill them with food. The boats are then released into the river to send the soul back. For families celebrating hatsu-bon, a monk will come to the house to offer some prayers.

I feel like an observer, yet there is an expectation that I help facilitate this all. I fret about insincerity, yet appreciate the customs and rituals. I guess just being present is all I can do. There are daily reminders about paying respect to one’s ancestors. Every morning and evening we take rice and tea to the altar.. whenever someone brings food or we buy really fresh fruit, it always sits on the altar for a few hours before we eat it. Jiro’s mom visits the family grave very day and lights incense…..I struggle with figuring out how I will or will not fulfill this tradition over time.

our family grave

our family grave

In the meantime I will pay attention and follow the lead of the others around me. We’ve ordered gifts for people who come to pay their respect, ordered a new stone name tablet for Jiro’s father’s place on the altar, have plans to dress up for bon-odori and I have taken three days off work.

I am still feeling disengaged from my life here; being connected is awesome…. I listen to “This American Life” and “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” podcasts on my way to work, I check the NY Times every day, and can be in touch so easily; but I wonder if that makes it harder to be present. I think once our own living space is done, I will fel more settled. Jiro has made a lot of progress this week. He hired a carpenter and they work about 10 hour days (in this heat!). This is what it looked like yesterday.

kura August 3

kura August 3

Today they put up siding..it’smostly recycled building materials, a little funky, but lots of character. I think next week it’ll be mostly done. We are putting in a composting toilet…hope it works out well.

On Saturday Nina and I drove up to Usa and did some sightseeing with a former teaching assistant. Here are some pictures of the day.

lotus at Usa Shrine

lotus at Usa Shrine

lacquer floor at Usa Shrine

lacquer floor at Usa Shrine

shop decorations

BungoTakada: shop decorations

dog of the geta shop

dog of the geta shop

Matama Beach-lone umbrella on the tidal flat beach

Matama Beach-lone umbrella on the tidal flat beach

Futago Temple Kunisaki Peninsula

Futago Temple Kunisaki Peninsula

Stairs to Futago Temple

Stairs to Futago Temple

I am still trying to figure out the best way to insert photos. I can’t seem to arrange them horizontally across the page.

Until next time…I am not being such a great correspondent, sorry. I hope this blog keeps you up-to-date on this crazy life of mine.

5 thoughts on “Getting Ready for Obon

  1. Kate! I’m always so happy to see your pictures that you post. My reaction is to think “what lovely vacation pictures” but they are not from vacation! I really liked the umbrella on the beach photo, it’s very good.

    I noticed that the standing lanterns seem to come in pairs…is there any significance to that? I am sure the family there appreciate your efforts quite a bit.

  2. HI guys,
    I am loving this blog, it gives us a connection to Japan, and you all, not normally received. Kate, its funny you mention this american life. When you were writing about the bribary at the last post I was imagining you on the show telling it with background music. (crazy imagination!)
    I return to the bamboo garden today!
    And saturday I see nancy at the openning in fountainhead. Jiro-Cant wait to meet your friend. I saw his fantastic work during my drop off. I’ll let you all know how the openning goes.

  3. Hi, Kate–

    The Obon arrangements are so lovely. Like Michael, I love the photos you send and look forward to your posts. We miss you but are pluggin’ along here.

  4. Kate, this ignorant Westerner thinks your altar looks beautiful. Thank you for the pictures, I’m especially impressed with the Temple pictures. Really, what lovely, lovely buildings in lovely settings.
    –valery

  5. HI Kate, I’m a little embarrassed to discover I’ve been missing the RSS feeds from youru site in my email (now I”ll pay attention). Beautiful photos (all but the lone umbrella on the beach especially) — Obon — something we all might do I think — I had forgotten the bon dance from my early years in Hawai’i. Take care, Bonnie

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