It is the spring equinox. Kokoro and Nohmen make an O Bon pilgrimage back to Kokoro’s hometown on the northwest coast of Honshu, by the Japan Sea. Her family had always lived in the small fishing village called Takeno. Her father and her grandfather were both mayor of this small but important town.
The journey there was so beautiful. Up through high mountain passes and forests, and then winding down towards the unmistakable light of the ocean. As they drove along, Nohmen always in charge of driving, they continued on with the strategies and devotions of their mission. He constantly thought about how to reach as many western people as possible with the teachings of Buddha. Kokoro worked with him spiritually, and valued being able to learn about how the European mind works and just how dominant it is.
Frequent attempts were made to distract Kokoro from her concentration on Nohmen’s people by countless phone calls flashing on her golden mobile phone, ornately decorated with many lucky charms which dangled down, and are very fashionable in Japan.
They arrived at the family grave to begin to clean it on the first evening of O Bon when the spirits are due to arrive. The small graveyard was a stone’s throw away from the huge old wooden family house, with its high wall outside, and inside one of the largest butsudans Nohmen had yet seen.
Behind the plot of sacred land accommodating four generations of Kokoro’s ancestors, there were steep slopes of mixed pine and bamboo forest. The slender trunks of the bamboo were buried deeply in undisturbed heaps of pine needles of a rich brown colour. In front of the tall gravestones in their raised beds, the beach and open sea stretched to Mongolia and the Arctic Circle. This prized position was especially chosen by Kokoro’s distinguished family to provide a beautiful environment for the spirits of their dead to bask in.
Fresh flowers had already been offered and as they looked at the inscriptions on each stone, Kokoro set about translating them. Her blended Japanese and English, suffused with a continual shiver of discovery as she unearthed meanings for her native kanji, echoed through the now deserted graveyard. Everyone had left to drink best sake and wait for the arrival of the unusual visitors.
The sun dropped into the shimmer of ocean turning the grey granite of the stones to dusky pink. The regular burning of incense left its brown traces along the speckled stones, accumulating in the stone burning vessels. ‘This is the place for stone,’ Kokoro said, ‘because it will last forever whilst accepting the changes nature would make to it.’
In Japan, stone is only safe for the dead whose once fragile bodies cannot be damaged any further. Incense is a household item providing a means of real contact with the invisible world for everyone. The squat stone figures of Bodhisattva Jizo, wearing a red apron and hat, guard the entrance into most graveyards, usually positioned close to a source of water which must be always present so that it can be poured over Jizo’s head. This soothes him as he works in the flames of hell to rescue the suffering.
Kokoro and Nohmen stand in the perfect stillness. The ancestors arrive for their brief visit with the dark.