Fireworks and Gravestones

I was writing the wrong blog, basically. For the last week, I’ve been straining to finish an article to answer the perennial question of my return: ‘what surprised you the most when you moved to Japan?’ But it’s a difficult question to answer, and I wasn’t getting much inspiration. Sometimes you don’t write well because you don’t know what to say.

I’ve been feeling a bit sombre since I got back. I don’t know if it’s just post-Christmas blues, the chill in the air and the lack of money, or something deeper. The restlessness is back with a vengeance, and the canopy of my imagination hangs heavy with dreams of departures: planes taking off for faraway soil, trains roaring through mountain valleys and waves lapping against distant beaches. I think it’s just January.

Anyhow, finding myself incapable of writing anything of merit, I was taking a walk in Hatsukaichi (an outer suburb of Hiroshima) to stretch my legs, and I found myself in an old graveyard on a hillside near the station, attached to Toun-ji Temple. The temple is a particularly elegant one, with one snaking pine branch slashing across it, oval windows and goshiki-maku, five colour curtains. Unlike many of the dense, grey city graveyards, this one was quiet and surrounded by trees, and felt spiritually charged. Even as I stood there, I realised what I wanted to write about, and sentences started tumbling from my brain. To fit my mood, this week, let’s talk about graveyards and the departed*.


At the Going Down of the Sun

49949300_2243674488998881_5751556405911879680_nMost graves are uniform in their basic design- grey pillars of stone with kanji carved, and painted into them. The magic comes in the decoration: Japan is the land of ikebana (flower arranging), and gravesides are replete with yellow chrysanthemums and many other blooms I don’t have the doggedness to identify. People who come to visit a grave will often sprinkle water on the gravestones, and leave an offering of some kind. They will then offer a prayer, usually a small bow followed by a quiet moment with palms together and head slightly bowed. Up on Futabayama, the graves are arranged on a series of ledges up the hillside, but here they were more chaotically arranged.

The offerings are a fascination in themselves. People often light incense or candles for the dead, just like they do at shrines or temples, but you also see ¥10 coins, sweets and green tea, both in traditional cups and convenience store bottles. You also come across some… stronger offerings. Today I spotted a can of Ebisu and a whiskey mixer, amongst other gifts. The oldest statues in the graveyard didn’t have offerings or flowers, but were marked by sprigs of conifer.


49831308_373594513216091_4907440412777512960_n (1).jpg

The most famous grave at Toun-ji memorializes a man I have mentioned before. Sue Harukata committed suicide as his enemies closed in, after the Battle of Miyajima in 1555. This was a minor skirmish in the long wars of the sixteenth century, but it was important- if Mori Motonari had lost, his family would likely never have built Hiroshima, and some other place would be the city of peace. I liked that the grave wasn’t grandiose- a little taller than the ones around it, perhaps.

Prayers for Jizo-sama

Besides the graves, graveyards attached to temples will also usually have statues dressed in bright vermillion shawls or bibs. The wellspring of this tradition is a dark one. The statues represent Jizo-sama, a Buddhist deity of sorts who is said to protect children who die before their parents, usually at a young age, as they make their way through the world beyond, sai no kawara. In the traditional story, children in this purgatory build towers of stones each day, which are destroyed by oni (demons) each night. Jizo-sama protects the children against the violence and terror of these demons until they can move onward. The bibs were once tied to statues by grieving parents seeking protection for their lost children.


These days, Jizo-sama’s remit has extended beyond protecting children who died, to protecting children in general, as well as women in childbirth. Each statue doesn’t commemorate a child, but instead acts as a locus for family prayers. You can see these statues almost anywhere there is a temple or graveyard, and they never cease to stop me in my tracks.

Days of the Dead

49848373_2140893179574627_6316387198526554112_n.jpgThere are particular times of year when people visit graves. Chief among them is Obon, the summer festival of the dead, when people go back to their family homes and visit the graves of their ancestors. I talked a bit about Obon back in August. Back then, I saw colourful kite-lanterns and paper strips decorating graves decorating graves at Hachiman shrine in Hatsukaichi, and blithely assumed this was a national tradition.

I’ve since discovered that the truth is odder than I imagined. Coloured paper adorns graves in Hiroshima, but nowhere else. In the far north of Japan, graves are given offerings of kelp during the summer season. Meanwhile in Nagasaki, people go to their family graves armed with fireworks, and light up the night sky in honour of the dead. This is absolutely my favourite Japanese tradition I’ve ever heard of.

Although Japan has kept alive the tradition of ancestor worship, there’s something unique about the practice here. People don’t worship their ancestors since time immemorial, like they do in many cultures. The ancestors you offer prayers to, generally, are those within living memory of someone alive. So you honour your parents or grandparents or great-grandparents’ generations, but generally no further.

I’ve read that this is to do with people in Japan having lived in small, nuclear families for centuries, just like in England. Even in the medieval era, people didn’t really have ‘clan’ identities, like they did in China. So there’s no need to pay tribute to ancient ancestors, to preserve the unity of the clan. You worship the people you remember.


At Tenmangu

There are two more graveyards within a ten-minute walk of Toun-ji. At Tenmangu, a stunning hilltop shrine and one of my favourite places to visit in Hiroshima, the graves are densely clustered, reminding you of another truth about Japan- there’s not much space to spare, in life or in death. Here, people come to pay their respects to the dead, but many people come up here for a quiet moment’s reflection, myself included.


I am going to talk more about Tenmangu in a future article, but for now I’ll leave you with some pictures from the shrine and its vantage point.

For now, with a Catherine wheel and a prayer,

From your correspondent in Hiroshima.

* If anyone’s uncomfortable with me taking pictures of strangers’ graves… yeah, I sort of see your point. I decided that, on balance, it was justifiable for the article.


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