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Sunday, Aug. 27, 2000


Visitors from the dark side of the Inland Sea

I'm dead. Not only that, but my spirit is now floating around the Seto Inland Sea. But before I explain to you how I died, I have to explain about Obon.

During Obon, the spirits of the dead come back to their childhood homes to visit. It's kind of like a dead-relative reunion. I wasn't dead at the beginning of Obon though, so I spent most of the Obon holiday trying to be a good hostess to the Nakakawa spirits, the previous inhabitants of our house. We always leave out plenty of sake for them, so I think they are pleased with us.

Despite the morbid implications of a holiday for the dead, the Obon holiday is really rather festive. Things temporarily slow down in Japan and people take several days off work and return to their hometowns to visit family. They visit their ancestors' graves and share sake with their spirits. On my island, you can tell when Obon is near when you start hearing a slow, methodical drum beat in the evenings. It can be heard from anywhere on the island and the slow repetitive beat sets the pace for everything you do. Even if there is a crisis, such as burning toast, you'll find it impossible to rescue it in time because you can't move faster than the drumbeat. You run in slow motion, like a movie, one frame at a time, one drumbeat at a time. You start to do everything in rhythm, including chopping your vegetables while blurting out an occasional "Yosh!" Meanwhile, the locals are all gathered around the drum, dressed in summer kimono, practicing the 400-year-old Shiraishi Dance to welcome the spirits.

The Obon holiday also means the end of summer vacation for school kids and the end of the tourist season on our island. That means no more Floating Circle Aliens. The Floating Circle Aliens come from the mainland, hundreds of them at a time jammed onto ferries, all carrying inflated "ukiwa" (floating circles), those plastic inner tubes that people use for swimming. The Japanese use them like life preservers. I've even seen people wearing them on private boats. Apparently, ukiwa float on land too, because people wear them around the island like a summer uniform. In Japan, it's "safety first," even if it means walking around with a piece of plastic protruding from your waist with Hello Kitty on it.

The end of Obon signals the end of the swimming season as well. Japanese people never swim after Obon. It's just too dangerous. If you dare to swim after Obon, the "kappa," a type of sea nymph, will come up and grab you by the legs.

After Obon, all the live relatives who have come from afar return to the cities on the mainland. They leave together on the ferry with the Floating Circle Aliens. It's really quite a spectacle as the island families line up on the ferry platform and wave goodbye to relatives who they'll not see for another year, until the next Obon holiday. This year I witnessed something apart from the traditional "omikuri" (seeing people off). Some young men who were leaving waved goodbye to their families in a very unusual fashion -- by dropping their pants then turning around and mooning their relatives.

Perhaps the better way to leave the island is by lantern. This is how the dead spirits leave and how I, too, left this year. On the last evening of Obon, during the "toranagashi" ceremony, the Buddhist priest comes and issues forth chants while the lanterns are lit and set afloat in the Seto Inland Sea to take the spirits back to wherever they came from.

As per tradition, my husband and I bought a paper lantern, and wrote our names on one side of the lantern and the names of the deceased, the Nakagawas, on the other. But when I handed in my lantern to the priest to take out to sea, I realized I had made a big mistake. I had written our names on the wrong side -- we were now the deceased!

Visit the Japan Lite home page at www.amychavez.com or e-mail comments to: amychavez@mailexcite.com

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