On August 13th They’re Coming Home — on Serpents of Straw, Cucumber Horses, and Eggplant Oxen
By Avi Landau
After 5pm the sun’s cruel and deadening grip started to ease up, and Tsukuba’s old neighborhoods began to come to life. By day, most adults had sought out the comforts of some air-conditioned refuge, while those with no such luxury sufficed with a shady place and a fan to laze away the day watching High School Baseball or some panel discussion on the North Korea crisis. It was even hard to spot any kids outside enjoying summer vacation. It seems that, they too, much prefer to be indoors with their beloved video games which have overwhelmingly supplanted hunting for insects and playing in the fields as the number one summer fun.
The evening of August 13th is always filled with excitement in these traditional enclaves. It is the first day of Bon, the three day period in which the souls of departed ancestors return to their hometowns to be with their descendants. Children and grandchildren have arrived. Preparations have been made. The house cleaned, the Buddhist altar (butsudan) set up with the proper decorations and offerings (these can conveniently be purchased at the special O-Bon corners in the supermarkets) and special lanterns and votive strips of paper placed at the front gate or entranceway to the house.
On this evening, the spirits of ancestors will come home, and their living descendants go to the cemetery to greet them and guide them home. This evening I saw Tsukuba’s small graveyards teeming with color and activity as families brought flowers, water and incense, as well as a lantern with which to guide the spirits back to their homes. Many neighborhoods can be seen with streets fully lined with such lanterns so no spirits will lose their way. Homes in which someone has recently passed away usually put out a much larger lantern suspended high on a pole since this will be the first time that that particular soul makes the journey back. These families celebrating a first Bon, might even light a traditional Bon Greeting Fire (迎え火, mukaebi), which have have been almost completely replaced by lanterns, for guiding and welcoming returning ancestral spirits.
When the families arrive home, the spirits are symbolically purified with water and salt, and greeted with 長い道を御苦労さまでした (nagai michi o gokuro sama deshita), you must be tired after your long journey! Then tea is drunk and incense burned.
In Ibaraki, especially around Lake Kasumigaura, there are many villages which continue to keep alive a very interesting custom, which is especially fun for the kids. The spirits of ancestors don’t have to walk from the graveyard. They are transported IN STYLE, on the backs of large dragons or snakes of straw, carried by the village children from the cemetery to EACH HOUSE IN THE VILLAGE where the appropriate ancestors are dropped off with much merriment.
Fortunately, there are also a few neighborhoods in Tsukuba which still keep the same custom, called Bon Tsuna (盆綱), or Tsuna Bon (綱盆). I joined two separate such events (in different parts of Tsukuba) this evening, and I would like to tell you about them.
Before the war, Bon Tsuna had been practiced in numerous hamlets in what is now Tsukuba City. It is now found in only a handful. Today I went around with the the straw dragon of Kami-Sasagi, near Tsukuba Hospital and the Space Center, and also that of Kurihara, farther north, near Tsukuba’s heliport.
In both of these magnificent hamlets, the children make the straw dragons on the morning of the 13th, with the help of some adults. At the end of the day, this year’s dragons are burned. In Sasagi, the dragon was more elaborately made, and well… more dragon-like, while its Kurihara counterpart seemed to be a thick pole made of straw.
The kids of Kurihara, however, certainly, showed lots of enthusiasm and stamina. They carried the heavy pole to more than 30 houses. They ran up to each house with a cry: “The spirits have arrived!” Then they proceeded to toss the dragon into the air about ten times before going on to the next house. In Sasaki, the same went on without the tossing and chanting.
Besides these straw dragons, both in Tsukuba and in some other area of Japan it is customary to decorate the Buddhist altar with a horse and an ox, made from a cucumber and an eggplant, respectively. These are also meant to represent rides for the spirits, and they are often cast off onto rivers or into the sea at the end of the festival. These decorations are fun for kids and utilize IN SEASON vegetables. A friend of mine in his 80s, Yoshida-san, told me something that I had never heard or read anywhere before. He said that the cucumber horse was meant for the arriving spirits, because horses are fast, the ox is for the departure, because it is slower, allowing for some last lingering moments with mortal loved-ones.
Making horses and oxen