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Grandad's Homecoming


I was on the Shinkansen, travelling to Nagoya, from there to head south down the Kii Peninsula to Kiho-cho, the place where my daughters' grandfather was born, and where he spent all his life. All that is, but the final year, during which he stayed with us in our Tokyo apartment, and then the final few weeks, which he spent in a nearby hospital.

He passed away there at 84 years of age, on an April morning, the fifth birthday of his youngest grand-daughter, my daughter Fumi, and followed later the very same day by his younger sister in her 70's, who was still living back in the home village.

With only a very few relatives living nearby, we had a very quiet and simple evening vigil for him in our town's funeral hall. His wife of 60 years was there, as were two out of his three daughters, four out of his five grand-daughters, and myself. (He also had two great-grand-daughters ... not one boy in the whole lot of 10 descendants.) The next day he was cremated, and together, we filled the simple china urn with his ashes.

It was this urn, packed in a small box, and tied with a furoshiki-type cloth, which I was now carrying on the train, on his final ride back to his home town. His eldest daughter was waiting for us there in the family home at the edge of Ozato village. I passed her the urn, and she placed it in a spot she had prepared in front of the family altar. Over the next couple of days, Grandad's friends and acquaintances came by to pay respects. It was not a particularly sad or dreary time. As he had been quite old, and bed-ridden for some time, his passing had not been a shock or surprise.

The arrangements were made with his temple for the funeral, and when the day came, we all trooped up there for the service. The women sat kneeling in the formal 'seiza' style on one side of the room, and we men sat in the cross-legged 'agura' style on the other. Grandad had been very devout, spending his final years deep in religious activities, and had been a strong supporter of this local temple. So the priest quite warmed to his job, and the service lasted a long, long time. Now every day, I sit in this cross-legged style while working on my woodblock prints, so this wasn't such a problem for me, but some of the farmers and town people around me were not quite so comfortable. A rather heavy-set florid man next to me started swaying this way and that, and a bit later started a good strong snoring. We ignored him, as did the priest, who continued intoning his endless chants.

An eternity later, it came to an end, and we walked across to the graveyard, high up on the sunny side of the valley, overlooking the scattered houses and rice fields below. His daughter carried the urn, someone else brought a shovel, and the priest brought along a few other things. I wasn't sure what to expect, but these people had seen all this many times before, and the ritual proceeded quickly. A rather small hole was dug in front of the gravestone memorializing past members of the family (mostly prepared by Grandad himself), and then rather to my surprise, the urn was not carefully placed into the hole, but was rather opened, and the contents unceremoniously tipped out into the earth. Grey dust and white, charred bone fragments - all tumbled out together.

On top of these remains, the priest laid a white robe that Grandad had used in one of his many circumnavigations of the 88 temples of Shikoku, and then a tiny slip of folded paper, containing the 'kaimyo', his new name for the afterlife, which Grandad had gone to special pains to procure a few years ago. The earth went back into the hole, we tidied up a bit, and then everyone went home. It was all over. An 84 year long journey was all over.

In the train, on the way home to Tokyo, I carried no urn, but instead bore a different burden. The vision of that little hole in the ground, and the jumble of bones. As I write these words, I am 42 years old ... halfway ...