August 16th is the last day of obon — a summer festival that honors the spirits of the dead. It’s the day everyone has to send back all those ancestors who have being hanging out at the family altar, feasting on fruit, sticky rice cakes, and sake’. Because, really, you don’t want them hoards of ghosties hanging around all year round. Especially that obnoxious Grandpa Hiro, right?
In order to send them peacefully back to the other side you have to perform what is called okuribi (送り火), translated more or less as “send off fire”. Everyone’s familiar with the lit paper lanterns floated down rivers. This is called toro nagashi. It’s a kind of send off fire, but it’s a boring way to do it.
My favorite way is what my town does at the beach every August 16th. Here, let me explain in photos.
First someone makes a bunch of these puppies. Back in the day there were fifteen to twenty all up and down the beach. This year only three. (#sad) I guess our town is spending all its budget on tsunami towers, no money left over to send the spirits back home in style.
The first one is just for the kids. They teach a bunch of elementary aged children how to hold the fire, how to swing the torches, and then once it gets dark, they let them loose. The idea is to land one of those flaming ropes into the open top of the broom-looking thing.
It’s always crazy with the old men yelling at the kids and chastising them for trying to kill each other. Entertainment at its finest.
Once lit, the whole thing goes up in flames. Slowly. They pre-load them with fireworks, too. Because if it’s not dangerous enough having twenty people winging flaming ropes all around in the dark, you need to add more bottle rockets.
The next two were reserved for adults. Anyone who wants to give it a try is invited down. No training needed. Let’s do this thing.
So most of the time this is going on a team of Buddhist monks are lined up with drums and chanting okyo to make the transition for the ancestors easier. My interpretation is that the spirits get woozy and ride the smoke back to heaven.
Here’s the moment when the adult team actually landed one of the fires into the top. Woo hoo!
Here’s a neat long-shutter shot.
And then at the end after all three are lit, the first one pretty much burned down, more fireworks in the back.
Because no matter what the culture there can never be enough things-that-blaze-and-blow-up.
There was even a short fireworks show after all this ended.
The day started. It was a mellow, sad morning with many tearful goodbyes to my Clarion West classmates. Okay, I have to go home. I’m going to do this thing. I arrived at the Seattle-Tacoma Airport three hours before my Japan flight, paid 75 bucks for my overweight suitcase (still loads cheaper than had I sent the books by post), and I trekked off to clear security and find my gate.
That’s when things went south.
The line for security didn’t look that long — heck, I still had two and a half hours before boarding — but some TSA agent seemed to think otherwise.
“While this line looks short it’s not. It’s not moving at all. You all need to go to Check Point Three all the way on the other side of this building. The line over there looks really long, but it’s actually moving quickly and you’ll get through a lot faster and still be able to make it back to this side of the airport to get to your gates.”
When in doubt trust the guy with the walkie-talkie I always say. So me and about fifty other passengers take off in the direction he pointed. But the stampede bottlenecked and there were three ladies with signs that read: “End of Line” and they were milling about and several of our group were joining those lines and someone was yelling, “This is for a Southwest flight”, and it was just a mess.
I’m of single-minded intent here. I do NOT want to miss my flight to Japan and have to spend the night in a freaking airport, so I start grabbing people and asking where the heck is Check Point Three. Someone wearing something that resembles a uniform and what might be a walkie-talkie on his pocket tells me I want to go all the way down by the Starbucks. That way. Just keep walking. I start to hurry away when a tall, longhaired, bespectacled (and cute!) German guy grabs my shirt and asks am I flying Delta and do I know what’s going on. I say, yes, I am and no, I don’t, but follow me.
And he does.
We find our destination and line up. The line is nuts, longer than that first line and snaking back on itself over and over again. But whatever, right? The first dude-of-authority said this one was moving faster.
No sooner had I put my backpack on my wheeled carryon to rest than there was a weird commotion right in the line that was running next to us. People started coughing, like serious hacking and choking and shit. It was rippling up the line toward us. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from living in Japan for 23 years it’s that you always carry a handkerchief with you. I pulled mine out, put it over my mouth and nose, and reached for my phone. The whole thing escalated quickly. More and more people were coughing. But it hadn’t completely sunk in something was really wrong. I took a photo.
It’s blurry but it’s heart breaking because I realize when I looked at it later that I took it the moment right after I witnessed a dad grab a towel or handkerchief from his pocket press it to his daughter’s face and scream for her to hold it tight and not take it off. You can see her standing there while her dad and mom try to get their bags on the conveyer belt for screening as fast as they can.
It’s here that I kind of say really loudly – because no one’s saying it – “What the hell’s going on?” Some lady runs by and tells me we’ve been pepper sprayed. Fuck. So I grab my German guy and tell him we’ve got to get out of here. He agrees.
In the short span of time that followed several things happened. People began to get really scared. The TSA and other security in the airport went from not knowing what was going on, to being mildly concerned, to screaming at us to get out of the building. My German guy (whom I’ll call E because I did learn his name and while there’s no way he’ll ever find this blog I don’t feel cool using it) and I are trying to get away while one TSA agent is screaming and pushing at us to go stand on the sidewalk outside. I look up at E and say if we go outside there’s no way we’ll make our flights. He agrees and we sneak by everyone trying to herd us in a different direction and meander our way back to our original check point.
The line there is easily three times as long but what choice do we have? We saddle up behind a cute elderly couple from Georgia and prepare to move very slowly. The three of them were troopers. They pushed my carryon along as I kept jumping out of line to try and figure out what was going on. I bought E some water and the four of us chatted about all sorts of stuff. A fun but also a harrowing two hours because I was sure I’d miss my flight. In the end we all stuck together and got through. It turned out our departing gates were all next to each other: S1, S2, S3. We shook hands said our goodbyes and I stifled the urge to ask them all to take a selfie with me. (I might be regretting this now.)
The 11-hour flight was fine but my lungs ached a bit and there were more than a few people with coughs. Also, a tiny bit of irony: Before I went to Clarion West, before we all met in real life there was a question going around our ListServ: What spirit animal are you? My answer was a bear.
Then six weeks later I was bear sprayed. Well played, Universe. Well played.
I’ve already started reading Leza’s book and am enjoying it immensely. Years ago I heard Tracy read a bit from hers (it was still a work in progress), but I was intrigued even then. And while I haven’t started Shannon’s yet, I’m pretty sure it’s going to be a trifecta.
By Leza Lowitz At 30, Californian Leza Lowitz is single and traveling the world, which suits her just fine. Coming of age in Berkeley during the feminist revolution of the 1970s, she learned that marriage and family could wait. Or could they? When Leza moves to Japan and falls in love with a Japanese man, her heart opens in ways she never thought possible. But she’s still an outsider, and home is far away. Rather than struggle to fit in, she opens a yoga studio and makes a home for others. Then, at 44, Leza and her Japanese husband seek to adopt—in a country where bloodlines are paramount and family ties are almost feudal in their cultural importance. She travels to India to work on herself and back to California to deal with her past. Something is still not complete until she learns that when you give a little love to a child, you get the whole world in return. The author’s deep connection to yoga shows her that infertile does not mean inconceivable. By adapting and adopting, she transcends her struggles and embraces the joys of motherhood. Stonebridge Press, June 2015
2) The Good Shufu: Finding Love, Self, & Home on the Far Side of the World By Tracy Slater The Good Shufu is a true story of multicultural love, marriage, and mixups. When Tracy Slater, a highly independent American academic, falls head-over-heels in love with the least likely person in the world–a traditional Japanese salaryman who barely speaks English–she must choose between the existence she’d meticulously planned in the US and life as an illiterate housewife in Osaka. Rather than an ordinary travel memoir, this is a book about building a whole life in a language you don’t speak and a land you can barely navigate, and yet somehow finding a truer sense of home and meaning than ever before. A Summer ’15 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection, The Good Shufu is a celebration of the life least expected: messy, overwhelming, and deeply enriching in its complications. Putnam/Penguin, June 30, 2015
3) Year of Fire Dragons: An American Woman’s Story of Coming of Age in Hong Kong By Shannon Young In 2010, bookish 22-year-old Shannon follows her Eurasian boyfriend to Hong Kong, eager to forge a new love story in his hometown. She thinks their long distance romance is over, but a month later his company sends him to London. Shannon embarks on a wide-eyed newcomer’s journey through Hong Kong—alone. She teaches in a local school as the only foreigner, explores Asia with other young expats, and discovers a family history of her own in Hong Kong. The city enchants her, forcing her to question her plans. Soon, she must make a choice between her new life and the love that first brought her to Asia. Susan Blumberg-Kason, author of Good Chinese Wife, has called Year of Fire Dragons “a riveting coming of age story” and “a testament to the distance people will travel for love.” Blacksmith Books, June 7, 2015