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Saturday, May 24, 2003

JAPAN LITE

The 49th day -- tradition and cat hair


Four rolls of toilet paper, one bag of fried shrimp snacks, "manju," bourbon biscuits, two pieces of "milk candy" and some liquid soap. That's what I got on the 49th day of my landlord's death.

These were the gifts that the son and his family had brought for friends and relatives who would be attending the "Okanki" prayers that would take place in the house where I live -- their ancestral home (called "Okankin" in other parts of Japan). The family had asked to be able to return for the weekend for this ceremony and to take the urn to the local cemetery for burial. My landlord was an old lady who had grown up here on this island. Of course, I obliged, although I avoided telling them about the cat.

You see, I have a white cat who, now that it is spring time, is molting.

I tried brushing my cat, but she is very skilled at "iaido" and drawing a sword, so I back off. Besides, she prefers to brush herself -- by brushing up against the pant-legs of anyone who walks into my house. The Japanese are so polite though, that they always say the same thing, "Oh, don't worry. I have cellophane tape at home." But I still worry because all the guests coming for Okanki would be wearing black.

I vacuum every day, sometimes twice, but it still doesn't prevent blizzards of white hair passing through the house regularly. They're more like cumulous clouds, really. I've even considered leaving the vacuum running 24 hours a day.

The family arrived at my house with the the urn in a Tokyo Disney bag. They brought back not just the bones, but the Adam's apple too. These were set in the family shrine inside the house. The island's Buddhist priest arrived and knelt on a cushion in front of the altar and chanted, while the family sat behind him.

I put the cat outside, as I didn't want to take the chance of the priest choking on a cat hair while chanting. Then I went into the kitchen to prepare green tea. I did look in on the chanting session once, and the son's wife was sending e-mail from her cell phone.

This is why Japanese funeral ceremonies remind me of kabuki performances. People come and go, mentally and physically, many of them with a mere passing interest.

Later, another chanting session was held for 15 neighbors and friends. Everyone gathered in front of the shrine for this. The lady leading the chants was practically deaf, so the chants wandered up and down with no real rhythm and everyone in the room started to giggle. People giggled so hard, tears came from their eyes. Or perhaps they were just allergic to cats.

After the chants and giggles, someone opened the window for some fresh air. Suddenly, like lightning, the cat jumped through the window and ran through the house so fast, she left nothing but a cloud of white hairs swirling in the air behind her. The hairs quickly hitch-hiked onto a static wave and transported themselves to the nearest black suit.

The bones and the Adam's apple stayed overnight and were carried to the temple the next day via the Disney bag. Despite the fact that everyone was rolled down repeatedly with a lint brush before they left my house, I noticed at the temple that most people were still wearing my cat anyway.

Well, that's OK. They must have cellophane tape at home. After the urn was taken to the cemetery and the family prepared to leave, they gave everyone one last gift for coming -- gift certificates worth 5,000 yen. I think I'll use it to get my cat a hair waxing.



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