Honoring time and ancestors, without religion
I’ve never before known a country where people honor their ancestors on such an ongoing basis as Japan. For a country whose population in general have no strong religious beliefs (although participating in an eclectic variety of religion-originated customs, traditions and rituals) this might seem somewhat surprising, but in many ways it makes real sense.
Without an external, judgemental god to rely on, there’s a far stronger focus on the physical, the here-and-now, and its connection to what has been. This manifests not so much as a spiritual practice as a giving of thanks and gratitude, a simple recognition of the past’s influence residing in the present.
This is revealed, for example, in the custom of arranging a small altar at home (a majority of people have these), at which incense is burned, or some food or drink placed on a regular basis. It’s a small ceremony but which serves to remind one ongoingly of one’s place in the scheme of things, and of time. Often on these Buddhist altars, photographs of deceased ancestors are placed, and daily respect is given to honor the generations that have passed on.
Japanese also make regular visits to temples and shrines at various times of year. Such visits are more social custom than a reflection of deep religious beliefs, and again at these times offerings are made or rituals carried out which demonstrate the awareness of the passing of time and one’s place in it.
Many traditional aspects of Japanese culture are based on an awareness and appreciation of nature’s annual cycles. This includes sakura viewing and celebration in springtime, special trips to observe fireflies in summer, or to listen to insects’ songs, and travelling to areas of coloured leaves in autumn. And such awareness naturally instills an underlying sense of the longer cycles of time, and life, and oneself, and ancestors.
Graveyards, beauty and dedication
Perhaps the honoring of past generations can be seen most strongly in the care given to the family tombs in which are housed the ashes of one’s ancestors.
Walking into a Japanese graveyard (“reien”), the overwhelming impression is of a place looked after with meticulous care, impeccably maintained and often incredibly beautiful.
They’re a harmonious balance of natural stones, trees and plants. And the gleaming stone monuments, perfectly aligned, engraved with the names of family members. These are regularly cleaned by relatives, decorated with flowers, incense lit, offerings left.
Each grave has its own character and is created with far more consideration to design than the usual Western style of grave – a flat slab with a headstone. Most Japanese graves consist of a raised platform one can walk up into via stone steps, and are often defined by a ring of trees or shrubs. The ground surface is sometimes concrete or marble but more often gravel or earth in which large trees can be planted, or upright standing stones. Stone lanterns of various styles are also regularly used in the design.
Because each grave is made and cared for individually, there’s also a wonderful variety of styles mixed together. Scenes like these in Aoyama and in Yanaka are typical.
And as mentioned before, the fact that they are usually extremely well maintained (unlike the often crumbling and uncared-for graves in Western cemeteries) makes the whole area far more inviting and comfortable to be.
Such is the beauty of graveyards that they include some of the most popular places to drink and celebrate sakura season in Tokyo. See this previous post which includes many photos of such locations.
They’re wonderful places for a walk, a picnic, or for quiet contemplation, often filled with the beautiful sound of birdsong by day and the intoxicating electronic chirps, buzzes and clicks of night insects in summer. Cats wander and bask in the sunshine. Butterflies and dragonflies hover, and the aroma of incense permeates.
Of all the Tokyo graveyards, I’m fortunate to live very close to one of the most beautiful of all. Yanaka Reien, a few minutes walk from my front door is a place I regularly pass through.
I documented Yanaka Reien at night in this post last year, which included a photo of what I consider one of the most cared-for graves one could ever hope to see. Overflowing with flowers, this explosion of colour is simply incredible to behold. I can only imagine the amount of respect, devotion or love felt that inspires descendants to pour so much energy into the honoring of their ancestors.
3D photos follow (please click to view full size)… please enjoy, comment and share.