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Why, Japan, Why? MAR-APR 2021

Japanese ceremonies we didn’t know we needed

Everybody knows about Japan’s famous tea ceremony, and of course they also mark weddings, funerals and graduations with ceremonies. But one of the most interesting discussions we’ve been having at book zooms about The Last Tea Bowl Thief is about how the Japanese have ceremonies for all kinds of things besides the biggies.

And I got to thinking. Don’t you think we also need…

Death anniversaries: the best party you’ll ever miss

People at Japanese ceremony

In Japan, people don’t forget all about you after you’re gone—one year after you become the Dear Departed, they throw a big party! Family and friends are invited, a plate of your favorite foods and a cup of your favorite libation is set out at the head table in front of a nice, flattering picture of you. Toasts are made in your memory. As people begin to enjoy themselves, they share fond stories about you and maybe cry a little, since you’ve only been gone a year. But as time goes by and people gather for your third and seventh and thirteenth etc. death anniversaries, the sadness is replaced by good memories, catching up on family gossip, and generally carrying the circle of life forward.

Invitation to Japanese death anniversary
An invitation to a death anniversary (which requires some tricky crossing out of honorifics on your own name and adding polite suffixes on others BECAUSE JAPAN)

Funeral for a Thing

You know how sometimes you need to replace a tool you’ve used forever, because it just plain wore out? A favorite kitchen knife? A pair of comfortable shoes that have seen better days? But…it feels wrong to just toss them in the garbage can, doesn’t it?

In Japan, they’ve got a ceremony for that!

February 8th, for example, is the day that old and broken needles are laid to rest. Anyone whose work involves sewing stuff gathers at Awashima Shrine in Asakusa for a requiem service to thank their old needles and pins for good and faithful service.

Pins and needles stuck into tofu at harikuyo memorial
Here’s a fraction of the worthy pins collected in blocks of tofu at the harikuyo memorial, where their spirits will soon be speeded on their way to Needle Heaven.

But tools aren’t the only things deserving of a memorial—some things, like the dolls representing the Imperial Court on Girls’ Day, Daruma wishing figures, and protective amulets all get cremated in a ceremony at a shrine or temple, in order to be properly retired.

Bin for collecting sacred garbage before New Year's at the Meiji Shrine
As you can see by the sign on the bin at the Meiji Shrine, there’s a major issue with people flinging the Wrong Kind Of Stuff into the sacred New Year’s bonfires. You have to be sure you’re choosing the right religion for each object—Daruma figures have to be taken to Buddhist temples; Girls’ Day dolls and amulets have to be taken to Shinto Shrines. And plastics are a big no no, but that’s because of the fumes.
Conveyor belt incinerator for sacred item cremation at Narita Shrine
If you missed tossing your Girls’ Day dolls and amulets into the holy New Year’s bonfire, you can conveniently drop them off at other times of year at this sacred conveyor-belt incinerator at the Narita Shrine

(Stuffed animals, action figures and doll toys are still a problem, even in Japan. Nobody wants to be haunted by zombie teddy bears and Barbies that weren’t given a proper Viking Funeral, so maybe we need to come up with some ceremonies of our own!)

Coming-of-age, at more than one age

Everybody knows about Coming-of-Age Day in Japan, when everyone who turned twenty in the past year officially becomes an adult.

Three young women dressed in kimonos on Coming-of-age Day at the Meiji Shrine
Girls dress up in the most elaborate kimonos and hairstyles they’ll ever wear…
Young men in traditional dress at ceremony on Coming-of-age Day at the Meiji Shrine
Boys get to rock their inner medieval Shinto priest…
Young men dressed up in Kitakyushu on Coming-of-age Day
…or pull out all the stops, gangsta style

But there’s also another coming-of-age day for kids! Shichi-Go-San is when three-year-old girls, five-year-old boys and seven-year-old girls get to celebrate some milestones of their own.

Little girls dressed in kimonos on Coming-of-age Day at the Meiji Shrine
Three-year-old girls are now allowed to start growing their hair long, and seven-year-old girls can dress in kimonos with their obis tied like grown-ups for the first time
Little boy dressed in hakama and haori on Coming-of-age Day at the Meiji Shrine
Five-year-old boys get dressed up in hakama and haori, the samurai trouser-skirts and robes that they’ll probably avoid wearing again if at all possible until they get married.

And the best part is that after they endure a minor ceremonial presentation and a major family photo op, they make off with big bags of candy. Score!

A car blessing for the road

Wouldn’t you feel better in that new car if you felt like it was looking out for you? Well, in Japan, you can get off on the right foot with any new vehicle by getting it officially purified at a Shinto Shrine.

Shinto priest blessing car
Photo thanks to The Reiners blog

Personal purification that doesn’t require any tedious inner self-examination

I’m not sure who first thought that walking across burning coals would be an awesome way to wipe the slate clean, but sometime in the distant past, that’s exactly what a bunch of more-rugged-then-thou Japanese warrior priests learned to do.

Priest throwing water on bonfire at the Hiwatari firewalking festival near Mt. Takao
Putting on a firewalking requires expert-level bonfire skillz, because producing the kind of righteously long walkway of smoldering coals that confers personal soul-cleansing takes all day
Priests walking across hot coals at the Hiwatari firewalking festival near Mt. Takao
Hiwatari is still done once a year at the foot of Mt. Takao by practitioners of shugendo, a rather, er, rigorous form of Buddhism
Priest splashing himself with boiling water at the Hiwatari firewalking festival near Mt. Takao

Monks who practice Shugendo also endure other feats of physical NO NO NO AIEEEEE ANYTHING BUT THAT, like splashing themselves with boiling water and chanting sutras while standing nearly naked under a pounding (ice cold) waterfall

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
The Last Tea Bowl Thief was chosen as an Editor’s Pick for Best Mystery, Thriller & Suspense on Amazon

For three hundred years, a missing tea bowl passes from one fortune-seeker to the next, altering the lives of all who possess it…read more

“This was a wonderful read.” —Nerd Girl Official

Jonelle Patrick writes mystery novels set in Tokyo, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

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