Thoughts on the Afterlife

It's been a while since I wrote.

I wanted to talk about graves this time.

Before that, a big thank you to all the people who gave me wonderful things for the holidays, since the holidays is where this story starts:

Among other things, I got some U.S. dollars in my paypal account which I used to buy things from US Amazon without having to worry about hidden transfer fees and international card fees and whatever.  Yay!  I bought a book by Lafcadio Hearn and promptly didn't read it, but carried it around with me everywhere waiting for a free moment to finally open it up.  Hearn published this book in 1848 after having lived in two Japanese cities.  I was so curious to read about the life of foreign English teachers in Japan 150 years ago.  Hearn was very interested in fairytales, ghost stories, and religious ideas.  Kinda like me, I guess.  He became rather famous in his time.  I would have loved to spend an afternoon walk with him.

Imagining ancient Japan, I often wonder how I would have fit in with that society.  As a woman, I wouldn't have been able to do half the things I do now.  What would I have done instead?  What did women with my personality do back when their hair was 6 feet long, when young girls hid behind screens, when there was no heating in the winter?

I got a coloring book from the coffee shop owner I gave my salamander picture to.  It has pictures of Japanese woodblock prints of women.  Each picture includes an image of the original print so you can see what colors to use.  It suggests using colored pencils and even has some tips on how to color which parts with the pencil in case you really can't just decide for yourself how to do it.  So Japanese.  And there are little images of some of the finished pictures done by the book's creator in colored pencil, in case looking at the original print isn't enough, and you need to see exactly what a colored pencil rendition would look like.  This is not the kind of thing I'm interested, if you haven't guessed.  The idea of making a copy of a copy of a copy. . .  I put the book on some lonely corner of my bookshelf.  But one cold day I pulled it out again and found a picture that really struck me.  It's a woman wearing a butterfly kimono with a bunch of ornaments in her hair.  She's writing poetry on some scroll.

Looking at this print, I found the answer to my musings.  I would be this woman.  I would be that weird neighbor who doesn't have 10 children, only a couple, who sits on the porch outside and writes poetry.  And I'd sketch pictures of the little creatures that came in my garden.  People would probably talk about that behind my back.  Oh Jeniko-chan, she spends too much time in the garden.  She's going to catch a cold.  And look how her skin grows darker under the sun!  But have you read her poetry?

Also, my hair would have lots of random metal bits in it, like in the print.

And I'd start a housewives club for poetry.

And my husband, Yo-no-suke, would still think I'm weird, and still love me the same way he does now.

I colored in the print.

So for Valentine's Day, I decided to take my husband out for a night at Tsuru-ya, the salamander-themed resort hot spring hotel which used to be a brewery.  I wore my salamader shirt that my mom gave me for Christmas.  By coincidence, my mom had given him a T-shirt as well, which had a Japanese crane "Tsuru" on it.  Too bad he didn't wear it.  The staff would have been delighted to see me in my salamander shirt and he in his Tsuru shirt.  But before we headed off there, he had to play golf with his boss.  So he was wearing golf clothes.

While he was out playing golf, I decided to go out with my friend Kelsey and look for spring flowers.  We found not only flowers, but a tomb, and a small art gallery.  The gallery had pictures of "The 10 Buddhist Kings of the Underworld."  These were drawn by a local artist who lived in the 1400s. The pictures remind me of Bosch's Heaven and Hell.  The main part of each picture has the King sitting at a desk, awaiting for the demons to bring in the next person for judgement.  And then the bottom fourth of the painting is the poor soul carrying out some awful punishment, usually with demons standing by to assist.  One man was getting his tongue ploughed with an ox and plough that were on fire.  Stuff like that.  All gruesome or bloody.  The thing was, I never hear people talk about a hellish afterlife.  I never hear it mentioned in any kind of religious teachings here.  Buddha is the symbol of love, peace, and forgiveness.  People tell me about how each flower contains a spirit, or how we should respect the world around us.  Or how to properly bow before an altar.  Or how to recite the chants for the dead during funeral services.  But no one's ever expanded much on the idea of an afterlife.

When I was studying abroad at Kansai GaiDai, I took a course on religion and we had to interview Japanese people about some religious topic of our choice.  I decided to ask people what their image of the afterlife was.  Most people said they hadn't given it much thought.  But a large number of people mentioned that there was a big river there, and some people said that heaven was covered in flowers.  I thought that was interesting, as Heaven in Western thought usually conjures the image of clouds.  Perhaps in Japan, an image of a river is invoked.  Either way, no one ever mentioned Hell or any ten kings.

At the museum, there was no more explanation on the pictures.  Were the other Japanese people coming into the museum as unsatisfied as I was?  The other people walking around seemed to be taking it in stride.  As if there being a gruesome hell related to Buddhism somehow was normal.  I wasn't sure, but  I thought the artist, Sessho Toyo must be a really morbid guy.  His more famous paintings are of mountains peering above clouds and simple natural things like that.    What could possibly have been his inspiration this time?  

Let's hold on to that thought.

So Yossi picked me up and we went off to Yubara.  We were greeted at the hotel and then given sake to drink as we filled out the paperwork and went over the hotel rules.   Because of Covid, the staff made sure our masks were on before approaching us to talk, and if we wanted another sip of sake, she would move away.  The hotel has two regular baths with 100% fresh spring water, one for men and one for women.  But for anyone who is worried about Covid, there is a private bath that you can simply put up a little wooden marker to reserve for just yourself and the marker doesn't come down until it's been cleaned.  For dinner, everyone eats in gorgeous private rooms.  Because of the flexibility of Japanese architecture, it didn't take much for them to slide doors between spaces and create these private rooms.  At the large tables, even if you are sitting with your family, you're at least one meter away from everyone. . . because a whole meter of food is placed before you!  The only intimacy here is the intimacy with your food!

As we ate, the staff came up to us near the end of our meal and informed us that if we got through our desert quickly, there had been a sudden announcement that a 5 minute firework show would be starting at 7:30.  Yossi and I rushed to put our shoes on and scampered out into the night still in our hotel Yukata.  The fireworks really did only last five minutes, so no large groups were formed, but people were coming down out of their houses, or poking their head out of their windows.

Suddenly a woman stopped in front of me and shouted in surprise, "Jennifer!"

I was baffled.  Who was she?

Apparently, she'd loved my Salamander picture and had seen me the last time I was in town.  I can't believe she remembered my face enough to recognize me again.  Wow!

"I heard a rumor you were back in town," she said.

What, am I famous or something???

Back at the hotel, Yossi and I fell dead asleep from an exhausting day.  But I woke up early the next morning to the sound of pouring rain.  From the balcony, I saw the surrounding mountains covered completely in lengths of mist.  Each fold in each slope seemed tinted a slightly lighter shade until the farthest mountains were completely shrouded in while.  Yossi was still sleeping, so I rented an umbrella from the hotel and started to wander around town.  I came across a graveyard on a hill.  Old, stone steps twisted upward and then opened up into the long rectangular forms of typical Japanese graves.  In the center of this place was an imposing tree.  It's branches had been cut back but its trunk was revealed a grand trunk that seemed taller as the large forms of mountains behind it were hidden by mist.

When I was young, I thought graveyards were scary, until I actually went to one the first time and the lack of scariness was disappointing.  Rows of stones with people's names.  I felt let down.  I'd wanted to feel something supernatural there.  But the first time I visited a Japanese grave, my heart was pounding in my chest.  I'd taken a wrong turn at a temple and ended up  in this strange realm of upright stones.  I felt suddenly the imposing power of something foreign about me.  A place where I didn't belong, where I didn't know the rules, out of my element.

But now, I don't feel that way.  Looking down at this graveyard, I saw monuments erected out of love.  Each stone has been carefully cleaned and each grave swept over lovingly, so that even the old and crumbling stones are free of dirk and moss.  There was no sign of death, nor of any gruesome afterlife of course, but here and there the shape of a lotus blossom or an etching of Jizo's childlike face show that the people who once were are still thought of fondly.  The sweet scent of incense struggled to rise up from an altar in spite of the rain.

I felt calm as I wandered.  In the center of the site was a grave that supposedly housed the remains of the lord of an old castle that once towered above this quaint resort town.  Now the site has been disassembled by the growth of trees and its exact location cannot be extracted by the eye.  The grave remains, though.  Perhaps that says something about our priorities.  Structures, wealth, and possessions matter less than the statement of "Someone was here."

So finally after Yossi woke up, we went to see our friend at Saboten.  The older man welcomed us in with a jolly smile.  Everyone in the coffee shop noticed my salamander shirt.  Thank you Mom!  I showed it off as well as mu lizard socks.  After talking for a while, an older woman said she wanted to try making one if she could just get that salamander print material.  She then revealed to me a box of 200 hand-made masks she made.  Not for profit, but to give to others so that they might make a profit.  She offered me a yellow one and I was so delighted she ended up giving me two.

Of course I brought everyone gifts in exchange for all their kindness.  In the afternoon, we reluctantly ended our conversations with the local people and headed out.  Yossi looked up a flower park and started driving there while I opened up my Lafcadio Hearn book.

Hearn, known in Japan as Yakumo, was coming from a world where people still thought of Asia as full of uncivilized barbarians who need a good dose of Christianity.  Along with tales and ghost stories, he also published his "sketches," his journal entries of what life in Japan is like.  They read almost like paintings, capturing moments instead of events.  He seemed very fascinated by religion and was eager to record all of its details.  Engrossed in my book, I suddenly came across the Ten Kings of Hell.

The ruler of the underworld is Enma, and under him are the 10 judges or kings.  These characters emerged when Buddhism, which introduced reincarnation, met with Chinese folklore, which involved kings or judges presiding over the underworld.  So the indigenous religion Shinto and the pure ideas of Buddhism don't have any sort of Hell, but the idea came over from China along with Buddhism and merged together with Japanese thought.  Apparently, when you died, you went straight to Hell for a while to be tortured until you could be reborn as a purer being.  Maybe a cow, or an insect, that would live peacefully and do no harm to the world.  Exceptions to this are children, who are protected by Jizo.  When a demon comes by in the terrible Underworld, Jizo hides the children under his robes and protected them.

I'm trying to find an article which clarifies this, but it seems to me that as the Emperor grew more powerful and the country began to join the rest of the world in starting wars and colonizing susceptible countries, the idea of the Emperor as being divine and connected to the Shinto gods became more important.  Especially, the idea that fallen soldiers were not directly going to Hell became important.  And in the end, the evil Enma and his Kings lost popularity in favor of imagining your ancestors protecting you from the spirit world and instead of being reborn as animals, keeping their individuality forever.  I suppose the idea just sat better with people.

Anyway, now I can see why Sessho painted these gruesome pictures.  It was probably on commission for some reason or another and was just the way of thinking at the time.  When Japanese people look at them they think, "ah yes, people believed in those things back then."

If I'm buried in Japan, I wonder if I will get the same long gravestone that someone will wipe free of moss and grit for a while until my family is forgotten..

I wonder where the graves are of other women like me, who sat outside and wrote poetry in ancient Japan, who now lay forgotten.

If I'd lived in that time, would I have believed in an afterlife of fire and brimstone?

I suppose it's a lot less terrifying to die these days.


P.S.  This week's funny Engrish found on the back of a jean jacket, "Welcome to the Suck"


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