The last Christmas card

After my mother died I took to writing Christmas cards to our family friends as I knew my dad wouldn’t keep up the tradition. Although I never liked sending Christmas cards in my youth, I found a strange enjoyment reaching out in mom’s place with bits of family news and my adventures of becoming a Buddhist priest. If Japanese love Christmas even though most of them are not Christian, so could I.

At first I got lovely cards in return, but as most of mom’s friends were already old and getting older, the handwriting got weaker and shorter over the years. The number of cards dwindled, receiving and sending. I always send a card to dad even though he never sent any. It didn’t matter, we talked regularly and on Christmas too. But then COVID hit and the rest home visitor restrictions and eating alone in his room drained the life out of him. My older brothers live nearby and did what they could. My talks with dad grew fewer and shorter, he rarely picked up his iPhone unless one of my brothers were nearby.

Dad entered hospice care after a few recent falls recently and I knew I was sending the last Christmas card I would ever send him. The short list grows shorter, I hope he gets it in time. It’s a strange feeling though, deeply experiencing the impermanence of life as taught in the Buddhist tradition, while sending Christmas cards. Not sad really, just hoping dad can leave this life with some dignity, or as he liked to say, ‘leave here with my boots on.’ I don’t know what to think about it but I miss sending those Christmas cards.

Death Detergent

My partner used to get packages of vegetables from his mother’s vegetable patch in the summer, rice from the family rice fields (long since loaned out to other farmers) after harvest time in the fall. Up until his fisherman father died a few years back he used packages of dried fish too. Little by little the care packages have dwindled away except for one item that is growing: bottles of detergent.

The Buddhist funeral culture of Japan is a complex gnarly institution, an event timeline that traditionally runs 100 days from from death, wake, cremation, funeral, 35 day ceremony, and finally 100 days. Up until the 1970s it was common for Buddhist funerals to last 5 days outside of the cities. There is also the wider society net of give and take: Koden, the monetary offering to the bereaved family. Koden comes with a running scale, friends and neighbors offer less, relations and immediate in-laws offer more. Koden helps offset the cost of a Japanese Buddhist funeral which could be very expensive. To wit the grandfather’s funeral.

When the grandfather died, the family temple (Shingon) resident priest was unavailable because he was in jail. He had lost both parents at a young age and was indulged by the community and his older sister. With no sense of responsibility in life, and too much free time on his hands he took to drink and drank so heavily that he developed adult onset diabetes in college, along with a mahjong habit. When he got back to Sado and took up the temple duties he had more free time to drink and play mahjong. One early drunk morning, driving back to the temple, he hit and killed a pedestrian, and so went to jail. And because he was in jail, the other Shingon priests in Sado didn’t want anything to do with him, publicly that is, and refused to take over the funeral duties to tamp down any bad gossip.

So the family had no choice but to call Koyasan mother ship and have 2 high priests come to Sado. Instead of taking using the plane tickets that had been arranged they traveled first class train and ferry. The also brought 2 assistants to help change their robes…without telling the family. They also stayed at the most expensive hotel in Sado using hired taxis refusing the pre-arranged hotel and family transportation. All of this quickly added up to more than 2 million yen for three days of work. By the 2nd day they were too drunk to chant properly. The grandmother, not one to mince words, called them a disgrace and dismissed them, refusing to pay for the 3rd day, in front of all the very surprised guests.

Whoever said that Japanese can’t speak their mind is full of BS, or hasn’t been to Sado. So much for the high priests of Koyasan. This sense of ingrained passed down entitlement is why the Japanese Buddhist priesthood is not well liked in everyday Japanese society. Tolerated, but not well liked. After all, somebody has to take care of the family grave. As for the bereaved family, the Koden fortunately covered all the outrageous expenses.

The Koden crowd gets a generous meal, sushi, beer, sake, etc., and a gift to take home with them as a thank you for coming and paying respects…and helping with the costs. The gift is usually a package deal arranged by the funeral ceremony operator, ‘here is our catalog of funeral gift options, please choose one.’ Sometimes it is food or gift towels, in Sado these days the default gift is detergent because…well because it’s practical.

My partner’s mother is 84. Going to funerals of family relations, departed neighbors and friends of her generation is an increasingly common activity. She has way too much death detergent on her hands and sends it on to her son. Even so our collection of death detergent is not long for this world. The mother will pass on of course but so will the institution of the often, usually for the wrong reasons, maligned Funeral Buddhism.

The tragedy of ‘Funeral Buddhism’ isn’t that it’s a business network of priests, temples, funeral service companies, caterers, crematoriums and cemeteries that keep a lot of people employed and money flowing, I mean if somebody can make money off my dead body in return for a healthy local economy and a respectful sendoff, I say fine. No, the tragedy is that younger generations have inherited gutted social institutions that don’t help them make the best of things because priests and parents didn’t teach them the proper value of things. They were too busy making money.

My partner’s grandmother was the last generation who knew how, and more importantly why the social institutions worked the way they did and how to teach them. But even she saw the writing on the wall. “Life and culture isn’t about convenience, they’re a pain in ass but don’t bother mindlessly following them, keep only what’s important and has meaning to you.”

This was the generation of neighborhood grandmothers who would gather at every household for a funeral, to prepare, to cook, to clean, to help. No need for funeral parlors or banquet halls. But with smaller families and the decline of younger people staying in Sado that started big time with the 1973 oil shock, it became harder and harder to maintain and the neighborhood grandmother funeral brigade decided to disband in mid-1980s. At that point everybody started using funeral business companies that took care of everything from funeral hall to banquet hall for a higher price.

The funeral business is a cosy relationship between Buddhist temples and local funeral businesses. In Sado for example the local JA runs the funeral business side but the smarter temples rent out funeral/banquet halls that they own to JA…and get a bigger slice of the business. In Tokyo recently this cozy relationship had been upended when the Chinese financier who owns Laox Holdings, bought up 70% of the Tokyo area funeral/crematorium business, and promptly slapped on aggressive ‘fuel surcharges’ and such. Buddhist priests are paying close attention to these developments but the writing is on the wall.

Younger generations don’t have the connection to Buddhist temples their parents did because priests haven’t been doing their job. To them Buddhist funerals are just another gutted social institution, and an expensive one at that, but at least they’ll have bottles of death detergent to do the washing.

Stolen Buddhas

The day after Christmas 2019, a priest noticed a broken temple door. Inside the hall one of the Buddhist altar statues, Many Treasures Buddha, was missing. The temple is deep in the hills of the Boso peninsula, accessed by a single narrow private road with a locked chain at the entrance. “Only the locals know about the temple,” said the caretaker priest Rev. Gensho Baba who tends the temple and the small community of some 20 temple families on a part-time basis in addition to his temple in Tokyo Edogawa ward.

He called the local police who duly recorded the crime scene and started an investigation but to date (July 2022) they have yet to find any trace of the statue or any lead at all. It’s a difficult job you see, searching for an object with only a written description to go by as there was no picture or detailed measurements of the missing statue.

An isolated temple in a remote rural area, with no resident priest, with no regular visitors, and only the most rudimentary of door locks protecting the contents are the perfect conditions for the theft of Buddhist statues and other temple treasures according to Tomoyuki Ohkouchi, associate professor of Culture Property Studies at Nara University.

“The most important thing to remember is that an antique Buddhist statue is like leaving a diamond in the open. A diamond that can be exchanged for money.” Professor Ohkohchi outlined the challenges of protecting the culture property of temples without resident priests, in isolated areas with a shrinking population.

The biggest problem is the time it takes for a theft to be discovered and reported to the police. In remote rural areas is may be days or even weeks before a caretaker visits a temple or shrine for cleaning and discovers the theft. After the police are called there is the challenge of collecting evidence, the most important being what the object looks like. There is very little police can do when they don’t have pictures and measurements of a missing statue. Unfortunately this is often the case.

In 2008 local papers in Shizuoka reported a rash of 18 thefts in remote rural temple and shrines in the upper Oi river valley. There were more. Ohkohchi explains, “Prefectural police are poorly integrated when it comes to cultural theft. In that case there were similar thefts in neighboring prefectures but no coordinated effort to pursue the thieves.” There was a similar but much larger string of temple statue thefts in Wakayama prefecture in 2015, 60 in all. Fortunately the thief was caught and some of the treasures returned.

Because of this event Professor Ohkohchi works tirelessly with local communities in Wakayama promoting simple security measures to protect sacred objects. He explains, “Temple and shrine treasures represent the cultural history of these local communities, theft not only robs the temple of a state, it also robs communities of their history and identity.” The lack of coordination and sharing of information on a national level is a big problem. The Agency for Cultural Affairs made a small step in 2018 by setting up a web site that lists stolen religious items, but there is a long way to go.

Ohkohchi’s program is a simple one: the cataloging of cultural assets by photographing and measuring them, and setting up surveillance cameras of unattended temples. For important cultural objects that are hard to protect in open temples, he promotes creating accurate replicas using 3D printer technology for altar placement while keeping originals in a safe place.

But why is this happening now and why the relatively sudden increase? Ohkohchi thinks it is due to the rise of internet auction sites like Yahoo Japan Auction, “The internet makes it easy for anyone to steal and profit.”

“Basically you have a two year statue of limitations under the law (antique goods sales law of 1949)”, he explained. If returned in the first year the owner does not have to pay anything when recovering a stolen item back from a dealer, in the second year the owner pays some costs to cover dealer losses. After that the only choice is buying it back or taking the shop/dealer to court, which can take years at enormous cost because in a court trail dealers let themselves off the legal hook saying, “I didn’t know it was stolen.”

Even during the first year it’s sometimes faster to simply purchase the item. Indeed a recent high profile case was solved when the stolen statue was offered for sale on Yahoo Auction, quickly recognized and removed. Rev. Daiun Miki of Ryuhonji temple in Kyoto explained the chain of events.

The person who did it knew the area and planned it. The hall where the statue was enshrined was the only building in the temple compound without a surveillance camera, he also knew what time the gate was opened and when nobody would be around.

He seems to have kept it for a while then sold it to a local dealer who had it professionally cleaned. The local dealer in Kyoto then sold it to a dealer in Oita prefecture (Kyushu) who then put it for sale on Yahoo Auction.

Thank goodness we had given pictures of the statue to police. If it wasn’t for that, the police can’t really do much.

Rev. Miki explained that the Kyoto Prefecture police were very cooperative and have a section well versed investigating with stolen antiques. The statue is back in its rightful place with a security camera guarding the entrance.

The Edo era Bodhisattva statue holding the moon stolen from Ryuhonji temple

Professor Ohkouchi continues to work with police, communities, temples and shrines to protect and preserve local religious cultural history for future generations. “Priests and temple members should never feel embarrassed or like it’s some kind of divine punishment when a statue is stolen. It’s all about money, so protect it like you protect your money. It’s that simple.”

Climbing Mt. Shichimen

I had not been to Mt. Shichimen since golden week vacation 2020, during the very first COVID pandemic ‘state of emergency’. It was a surreal trip to say the least. Shinjuku station and the Chuo Expressway were completely deserted on a Saturday as I rode all alone, the only passenger on the Keio Highway bus to Minobu.

This time, golden week 2022, there were people thank goodness, at Shinjuku station, on the bus and in the highway rest areas. Even Minobu looked somewhat lively with day tourists enjoying a vacation day drive in the countryside. But there were signs of decay from two years of COVID restricted travel. A shop closed here, a vacant lot there. There were visitors, but few pilgrims. The temple inns for them (shukubo) were mostly empty at a time they should have been full.

And because they were mostly empty the staff were generous with food and drink. When I ordered a cup of sake to go along with dinner, the head priest of Chijaku-bo brought an opened sake bottle urging me to finish it off saying, “I don’t drink now and this will go to waste.” I obliged but drank far more than bargained for. I took a bath then stood outside in the cool evening air to let my head settle, listening to the sounds of the river as a crescent moon slid into a black outline of mountain peaks.

Next morning I took the early bus to the Shichimen trail base. The climb is recorded in the video. I tried to capture all 50 ‘chome’ point markers but missed a few. The video is a kind of experiment to see what works and what doesn’t in preparation of another climb to record the protective dragon legend of Mt. Shichimen. Until then…