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Maybe this place isn’t so bad

March 30, 2007

It was a beautiful day yesterday, so I got out of work a bit early and decided to head for the gym (which is like an hour's drive away). However, I decided to take it a bit easy and detoured by a shrine which I had been meaning to go see.

It was a lovely old shrine, apparently one of the oldest in the area, on quite wide pretty grounds. There were a bunch of sakura trees, and some were just starting to bloom. I can see why people get so excited about them. Up until now, I've only seen the "ume", the peach blossoms, which are quite a dark, striking shade of purple-pink, or white. I had no idea how to tell them apart from sakura (cherry blossom), or why sakura is so highly regarded here. I thought the ume was pretty as well. But now that I've seen some sakura, I can see that it really is a beautiful delicate shade of pink. When it hits the season when they all bloom and cover expanses of land, I can imagine it'll look incredible beautiful. They only last a week or two – the fleeting and fragile nature of them is what endears them most to the Japanese.

Anyway, so I was wandering around the grounds when I saw a monk bustling about doing some cleaning. I had a short talk with thim – he was really hard to understand as he tended to speak quickly and unsurely, looking at his feet and stammering alot – before he sort of turned around and set off somewhere else within the grounds. He returned a little while later and handed me some sheets of paper with information on upcoming ceremonies at the shrine (all in Japanese, or course), and a little packet. The packet contained umeboshi, or sour plums. They're not very nice at all, but the Japanese love them, and they're OK if you just get a little bit of juice to mix in with your rice. So, I thanked him for that, and he bustled off into the shrine again. I saw him again before I left, sitting in the building doing some kind of calligraphy. I took some photos, but since I'm at work now, I'll have to wait till I'm home to post them.

I went to the gym, and by the time I left, it was nighttime. On the long road home, as I was approaching my village, I saw a building off the road a wee bit all lit up, standing out starkly in the complete blackness of the rice fields and hills surrounding it. Around the change of seasons, alot of temples and shrines have "light-ups", where they place lanterns around the grounds, and open them at night for people to wander around and admire the beauty and tranquility of the place. Although I've never seen one anywhere near this far out, I didn't know what else it could be. So I detoured that way to check it out.

As I approached, I saw many cars parked nearby. I also saw that out front was a little table with several men in suits, who looked like they were in charge of admitting entry. I went up to them and asked what was going on. They told me it was "osoushiki". I don't know what that is, but I know the "-shiki" suffix means "ceremony", and a few weeks ago I managed to catch the tail end of the inauguration ceremony of a new Buddhist monk in the city, so I figured this might be something similar. "Obousan?" (Buddhist monk?) I asked. They all agreed. So I started spouting off about how nice it was, and it looked like a beautiful place, and all that sort of thing.

The guys started asking me the usual run of questions – where I came from, how long I'd been here, why I was here, and how old I was. Looking back now, they didn't ask me if I had a girlfriend, or if I wanted a Japanese wife – which are usually the favourite questions of middle-aged men – so that's kinda weird. But anyway, after I'd built up a bit of a rapport with them (and especially after they found out I was a teacher), and since my interest in the event was obvious, they asked me to step inside and see. I had to refuse, however, seeing as everyone here was immaculately dressed in suits and I was just wearing my tracksuit and all gross and sweaty. I really felt like I shouldn't be entering in on a formal ceremony in a temple. But the guys insisted, and led me in.

And so that was how I ended up crashing some poor guy's funeral. In my sweaty tracksuit, and with sushi breath from the food I'd grabbed from the supermarket on the way. This wan't a temple after all, but some (presumably quite rich) person's private home. Everyone was immaculately dressed and solemn, kneeling on the ground and looking at the incredibly huge and ornate altar at the front of the room covered in decorations and offerings surrounding a framed photo of the deceased's smiling face. I felt so unbelievably inappropriate. A monk was walking around the room waving a little stick at the grievers. "Obousan", one of the guys said, pointing to him.

I tried to ask what were appropriate words to say to the family and friends at a time like this, but my Japanese wasn't good enough to get that question out, and so I had to resort to a multitude of bows and an unending string of "sumimasen" (Excuse me, I'm sorry). We finally left and stood outside, where I apologised again. I noticed now that all along the side of the road were tall bamboo poles covered in flowers and each sporting a little sign with the name of a family or group on it – the Japanese equivalent of wreaths, I guess. One of the guys asked if I knew his little girl, who I taught. She's in one of the classes I've seen about 4 or 5 times all year, so I had to apologise and say no, I didn't remember the name, but I was sure I'd remember the face. Before I knew it, he was on the phone to his daughter, asking her if she knew who I was. She did, and the man looked very pleased. Then he informed her that I didn't remember her. I felt really awkward again, as I felt that was kind of a mean thing to say. I could just get out a "hidoi yo" (that's awful), which luckily got a good laugh, and not a cold stare, from everyone.

All the guests started to leave the house, and so rather than stick around and feel even more out of place as the number of people around me started to increase, I quickly made my apologies and went to leave. But not before one of the guys insisted on giving me, despite my protests, a little gift of traditional Japanese tea, supplied by the family of the deceased and intended as a thankyou for those who had come to pay their respects. So I quickly made my way back to my car, passing all the grievers, some of whom were probably the family, in my tracksuit and clutching my tea, bowing furiously at everyone, and got the hell out.

As awkward as it was, the people were very friendly to me, and very understanding of my lack of knowledge of the language or the culture. Both the shrine monk giving me information and plums, and the funeral people inviting me in and giving me tea, were lovely people who I'm glad I came across. None of this happened in my actual village, since, as I've said, there are no people there to do this, but still, these places weren't too far away. So maybe, I can have enough random encounters like those that this area won't seem so unfriendly after all 🙂

Also, I'm going to have to take that family some kind of gift for appearing at their funeral and taking their tea. It's normal in Japan to give plain money as a gift, as the Japanese are very practically-minded people, but that's gonna feel weird. I might have to be foreign and get them an actual gift.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 16, 2008 2:43 am

    how cool – just what you needed, when you needed it!hey, it's superserious from efx, in case you didn't know

  2. April 16, 2008 6:18 pm

    Yep, I remember that day :)Figured it out. Good to see a familiar face!

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