Obon お盆

The obon festival happens in mid-August, when most people take two or three days off work to return to their hometown and – more importantly – to pay homage to their ancestors at the family grave. Practically speaking, this usually means many hours stuck in an expressway traffic jam, followed by a day or two of over-eating and allowing the grandparents to spoil the grandchildren rotten, followed by many more hours stuck in an expressway traffic jam (some of this year’s were up to 70km long). Fortunately, Mrs M’s parents live just 12km away along a quiet country road, and they don’t as yet have any grandchildren to spoil rotten, so our obon was a pretty relaxed affair.

On Saturday evening we went to the local obon festival, which included food, drink and amusement stalls (hoopla, catch the goldfish and so on), a music stage, a taiko (太鼓 / Japanese drumming) contest and a procession of omikoshi (お神輿), which are the sometimes large and sometimes heavy portable shrines that groups of people in traditional costume carry through the streets, chanting as they go.

‘Occasionally,’ otoh-san told me, ‘the omikoshi get dropped. A few years ago one of them landed on that shop over there.’
‘I suppose it must be difficult to keep it upright if you’ve been carrying it for a long time,’ I said.
‘Ah, but that wasn’t an accident. The guy who owned the shop wasn’t very popular. He was always complaining about his neighbours, so they got together before the festival and planned the whole thing!’

When I asked if otoh-san had ever done any omikoshi carrying himself, he said that no, he wasn’t really interested in that kind of thing – in fact, this was his first visit to the festival since Mrs M was in kindergarten, and once we had jostled our way through the crowds for half an hour, he was keen to get away. With no fireworks either – many local councils have been trying to save money after the earthquake – this meant that much to Mrs M’s disappointment, instead of sticking around for some festival food (the whale meat shish kebabs were sold out, I noticed), we had a sit-down meal in a nearby restaurant, before rounding off the evening with a spot of karaoké.

The local karaoké box is under new management, and otoh-san complained that on their newly installed machines, the enka (演歌 / traditional ballad) recordings were all slightly flat, although you can of course adjust the key and speed of any song, and the volume and reverb of both the vocal and music tracks. There is also a new feature – or rather, a souped-up version of an old feature – that monitors your voice and gives a percentage score based on factors like timing, vibrato and whether or not you’ve managed to stay in tune: the aim while you’re singing is to keep the undulating line of your voice as close as possible to a scrolling graphic of the song, which looks like a cross between Wii Guitar Hero and proper musical notation. Okah-san was either too shy or too tired to join in, so I had the chance to murder several Beatles and Sinatra numbers, and when I attempted to sing my favourite stirring Japanese rock ballad, to realise that my ability to read Japanese subtitles is still a little too slow to enable an error-free karaoké performance. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mrs M – who used to be the lead singer in her high school chorus club – got the highest score of the evening for her rendition of Belinda Carlisle’s Heaven Is A Place On Earth.

The next morning we headed over to the local temple, whose earthquake-damaged ceramic tiles are in the process of being replaced with a less fragile – although probably even more expensive – copper-clad roof, which is still gleaming now, but which after a few years of oxidisation will apparently turn a dull dark green. A black granite tablet about two metres wide by one metre high, on which the names of everyone who contributed money to the building of the temple are carved (including otoh-san), had toppled over in the quake and smashed into pieces, and in the cemetery behind the temple, many of the gravestones have yet to be re-erected.

‘The one next door fell over and hit ours,’ said otoh-san, pointing to a large chip in the pedestal of the family grave.
‘The top part didn’t fall over, though,’ said onii-san. ‘It just rotated slightly until it was pointing north instead of east.’
This black granite obelisk, which is about a metre high and must weigh several hundred kilos, shifted even further during the aftershocks, although it has now been repaired to supposedly more earthquake-resistant standards.

The grave used to be a lot more basic, but when his barber shop was at its busiest in the early nineties, otoh-san shelled out a large sum of money to have it upgraded. There are now three or four steps leading up to the obelisk, which is flanked by two stone lanterns, and surrounded by a bed of gravel and a low stone wall. To the right is a black granite tablet that lists the names of those whose ashes have been interned there: in this case, otoh-san’s mother and father, the baby that okah-san lost to a miscarriage between giving birth to onii-san and Mrs M, and the beloved family pet Nana-chan, a fluffy-haired shitsu who died about four years ago. On the top step is an ornamental stone box in which to place incense sticks, although a small family of bees had recently taken up residence there, so we had to chase them off and prise their nest from the box before we could put our hands together in prayer.

On the way out, and before pausing to lay the remainder of our incense sticks in front of what is effectively a pauper’s grave – a corner of the cemetery for those people with no relatives to pay for a permanent memorial – otoh-san pointed out an inscription on one of the more ostentatious gravestones that read kuinashi (悔い無し).
‘No regrets,’ I translated.
‘Me too! No regrets!’ said otoh-san, and chuckled to himself as we made our way back to the car.

As they do every obon and new year, the following evening a car-full of relatives stopped off for dinner, which for okah-san’s sake consisted of several large platters of takeaway sushi and agémono (揚げ物 / deep fried chicken, prawns and the like). Noriko oba-san is otoh-san’s younger sister, Nobuaki oji-san is his younger brother, Nobuaki’s wife is Yoko oba-san, and Gen-chan is Noriko’s grandson, who is now eight years old, but was the only guest under the age of about eighteen at our wedding, where he sported a particularly endearing combination of jacket, shirt and tie, shorts and Mohican haircut.

The four of them had driven from Tokyo that morning, all the way to Iwaki in the north of Ibaraki, where another of otoh-san’s brothers owns a fish restaurant and sandwich shop on the coast road. The first floor of the restaurant was inundated in the tsunami, and while it has now re-opened, the road itself is still under repair.
‘The customers have to use a car park nearby and walk all the way round to the front of the shop,’ said Yoko as she passed round a box of sandwiches freshly made that morning.

While Genji watched TV and played his Nintendo DS, we worked our way through most of the food, several large cans of Asahi and a couple of bottles of saké, and once otoh-san and Noriko set about putting the world to rights, it was pretty hard to stop them. Noriko became particularly passionate about the merits of British English over American English, although this was, I suspect, mostly for my benefit, and while I tried to join in with the conversation as much as possible, Nobuaki played the role of diplomat, and Yoko chatted to okah-san about less controversial topics than the economy and race relations.

Gen-chan, who had been too shy to talk to anyone for most of the evening, suddenly came to life when they were about to leave, wolfing down some leftovers, shaking my hand and saying ‘Goodbye!’ before he ran outside to get in the car. As the only adult left sober, it was Yoko’s turn to take the wheel for the drive back to Tokyo, and the four of them headed off into the night with two large watermelons from okah-san’s allotment as a parting gift.

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