Chapter Five. At the Market of the Dead


IT is just past five o'clock in the afternoon. Through the open door of my little study the rising breeze of evening is beginning to disturb the papers on my desk, and the white fire of the Japanese sun is taking that pale amber tone which tells that the heat of the day is over. There is not a cloud in the blue - not even one of those beautiful white filamentary things, like ghosts of silken floss, which usually swim in this most ethereal of earthly skies even in the driest weather.

A sudden shadow at the door. Akira, the young Buddhist student, stands at the threshold slipping his white feet out of his sandal-thongs preparatory to entering, and smiling like the god Jizo.

'Ah! komban, Akira.'

'To-night,' says Akira, seating himself upon the floor in the posture of Buddha upon the Lotus, 'the Bon-ichi will be held. Perhaps you would like to see it?'

'Oh, Akira, all things in this country I should like to see. But tell me, I pray you; unto what may the Bon-ichi be likened?'

'The Bon-ichi,' answers Akira, 'is a market at which will be sold all things required for the Festival of the Dead; and the Festival of the Dead will begin to-morrow, when all the altars of the temples and all the shrines in the homes of good Buddhists will be made beautiful.'

'Then I want to see the Bon-ichi, Akira, and I should also like to see a Buddhist shrine - a household shrine.'

'Yes, will you come to my room?' asks Akira. 'It is not far - in the Street of the Aged Men, beyond the Street of the Stony River, and near to the Street Everlasting. There is a butsuma there - a household shrine - and on the way I will tell you about the Bonku.'

So, for the first time, I learn those things - which I am now about to write.


From the 13th to the 15th day of July is held the Festival of the Dead - the Bommatsuri or Bonku - by some Europeans called the Feast of Lanterns. But in many places there are two such festivals annually; for those who still follow the ancient reckoning of time by moons hold that the Bommatsuri should fall on the 13th, 14th, and 15th days of the seventh month of the antique calendar, which corresponds to a later period of the year.

Early on the morning of the 13th, new mats of purest rice straw, woven expressly for the festival, are spread upon all Buddhist altars and within each butsuma or butsudan - the little shrine before which the morning and evening prayers are offered up in every believing home. Shrines and altars are likewise decorated with beautiful embellishments of coloured paper, and with flowers and sprigs of certain hallowed plants - always real lotus-flowers when obtainable, otherwise lotus-flowers of paper, and fresh branches of shikimi (anise) and of misohagi (lespedeza). Then a tiny lacquered table - a zen-such as Japanese meals are usually served upon, is placed upon the altar, and the food offerings are laid on it. But in the smaller shrines of Japanese homes the offerings are more often simply laid upon the rice matting, wrapped in fresh lotus-leaves.

These offerings consist of the foods called somen, resembling our vermicelli, gozen, which is boiled rice, dango, a sort of tiny dumpling, eggplant, and fruits according to season - frequently uri and saikwa, slices of melon and watermelon, and plums and peaches. Often sweet cakes and dainties are added. Sometimes the offering is only O-sho-jin-gu (honourable uncooked food); more usually it is O-rio-gu (honourable boiled food); but it never includes, of course, fish, meats, or wine. Clear water is given to the shadowy guest, and is sprinkled from time to time upon the altar or within the shrine with a branch of misohagi; tea is poured out every hour for the viewless visitors, and everything is daintily served up in little plates and cups and bowls, as for living guests, with hashi (chopsticks) laid beside the offering. So for three days the dead are feasted.

At sunset, pine torches, fixed in the ground before each home, are kindled to guide the spirit-visitors. Sometimes, also, on the first evening of the Bommatsuri, welcome-fires (mukaebi) are lighted along the shore of the sea or lake or river by which the village or city is situated - neither more nor less than one hundred and eight fires; this number having some mystic signification in the philosophy of Buddhism. And charming lanterns are suspended each night at the entrances of homes - the Lanterns of the Festival of the Dead - lanterns of special forms and colours, beautifully painted with suggestions of landscape and shapes of flowers, and always decorated with a peculiar fringe of paper streamers.

Also, on the same night, those who have dead friends go to the cemeteries and make offerings there, and pray, and burn incense, and pour out water for the ghosts. Flowers are placed there in the bamboo vases set beside each haka, and lanterns are lighted and hung up before the tombs, but these lanterns have no designs upon them.

At sunset on the evening of the 15th only the offerings called Segaki are made in the temples. Then are fed the ghosts of the Circle of Penance, called Gakido, the place of hungry spirits; and then also are fed by the priests those ghosts having no other friends among the living to care for them. Very, very small these offerings are - like the offerings to the gods.


Now this, Akira tells me, is the origin of the Segaki, as the same is related in the holy book Busetsuuran-bongyo: