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An essay by Lafcadio Hearn

At The Market Of The Dead

Title:     At The Market Of The Dead
Author: Lafcadio Hearn [More Titles by Hearn]

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:

Dai-Mokenren, the great disciple of Buddha, obtained by merit the Six Supernatural Powers. And by virtue of them it was given him to see the soul of his mother in the Gakido--the world of spirits doomed to suffer hunger in expiation of faults committed in a previous life. Mokenren saw that his mother suffered much; he grieved exceedingly because of her pain, and he filled a bowl with choicest food and sent it to her. He saw her try to eat; but each time that she tried to lift the food to her lips it would change into fire and burning embers, so that she could not eat. Then Mokenren asked the Teacher what he could do to relieve his mother from pain. And the Teacher made answer: 'On the fifteenth day of the seventh month, feed the ghosts of the great priests of all countries.' And Mokenren, having done so, saw that his mother was freed from the state of gaki, and that she was dancing for joy. [1] This is the origin also of the dances called Bono-dori, which are danced on the third night of the Festival of the Dead throughout Japan.

Upon the third and last night there is a weirdly beautiful ceremony, more touching than that of the Segaki, stranger than the Bon-odori--the ceremony of farewell. All that the living may do to please the dead has been done; the time allotted by the powers of the unseen worlds unto the ghostly visitants is well nigh past, and their friends must send them all back again.

Everything has been prepared for them. In each home small boats made of barley straw closely woven have been freighted with supplies of choice food, with tiny lanterns, and written messages of faith and love. Seldom more than two feet in length are these boats; but the dead require little room. And the frail craft are launched on canal, lake, sea, or river--each with a miniature lantern glowing at the prow, and incense burning at the stern. And if the night be fair, they voyage long. Down all the creeks and rivers and canals the phantom fleets go glimmering to the sea; and all the sea sparkles to the horizon with the lights of the dead, and the sea wind is fragrant with incense.

But alas! it is now forbidden in the great seaports to launch the shoryobune, 'the boats of the blessed ghosts.'

It is so narrow, the Street of the Aged Men, that by stretching out one's arms one can touch the figured sign-draperies before its tiny shops on both sides at once. And these little ark-shaped houses really seem toy-houses; that in which Akira lives is even smaller than the rest, having no shop in it, and no miniature second story. It is all closed up. Akira slides back the wooden amado which forms the door, and then the paper-paned screens behind it; and the tiny structure, thus opened, with its light unpainted woodwork and painted paper partitions, looks something like a great bird-cage. But the rush matting of the elevated floor is fresh, sweet-smelling, spotless; and as we take off our footgear to mount upon it I see that all within is neat, curious, and pretty.

'The woman has gone out,' says Akira, setting the smoking-box (hibachi) in the middle of the floor, and spreading beside it a little mat for me to squat upon.

'But what is this, Akira?' I ask, pointing to a thin board suspended by a ribbon on the wall--a board so cut from the middle of a branch as to leave the bark along its edges. There are two columns of mysterious signs exquisitely painted upon it.

'Oh, that is a calendar,' answers Akira. 'On the right side are the names of the months having thirty-one days; on the left, the names of those having less. Now here is a household shrine.'

Occupying the alcove, which is an indispensable part of the structure of Japanese guest-rooms, is a native cabinet painted with figures of flying birds; and on this cabinet stands the butsuma. It is a small lacquered and gilded shrine, with little doors modelled after those of a temple gate--a shrine very quaint, very much dilapidated (one door has lost its hinges), but still a dainty thing despite its crackled lacquer and faded gilding. Akira opens it with a sort of compassionate smile; and I look inside for the image. There is none; only a wooden tablet with a band of white paper attached to it, bearing Japanese characters--the name of a dead baby girl--and a vase of expiring flowers, a tiny print of Kwannon, the Goddess of Mercy, and a cup filled with ashes of incense.

'Tomorrow,' Akira says, 'she will decorate this, and make the offerings of food to the little one.'

Hanging from the ceiling, on the opposite side of the room, and in front of the shrine, is a wonderful, charming, funny, white-and-rosy mask-- the face of a laughing, chubby girl with two mysterious spots upon her forehead, the face of Otafuku. [2] It twirls round and round in the soft air-current coming through the open shoji; and every time those funny black eyes, half shut with laughter, look at me, I cannot help smiling. And hanging still higher, I see little Shinto emblems of paper (gohei), a miniature mitre-shaped cap in likeness of those worn in the sacred dances, a pasteboard emblem of the magic gem (Nio-i hojiu) which the gods bear in their hands, a small Japanese doll, and a little wind- wheel which will spin around with the least puff of air, and other indescribable toys, mostly symbolic, such as are sold on festal days in the courts of the temples--the playthings of the dead child.

'Komban!' exclaims a very gentle voice behind us. The mother is standing there, smiling as if pleased at the stranger's interest in her butsuma-- a middle-aged woman of the poorest class, not comely, but with a most kindly face. We return her evening greeting; and while I sit down upon the little mat laid before the hibachi, Akira whispers something to her, with the result that a small kettle is at once set to boil over a very small charcoal furnace. We are probably going to have some tea.

As Akira takes his seat before me, on the other side of the hibachi, I ask him:

'What was the name I saw on the tablet?'

'The name which you saw,' he answers, 'was not the real name. The real name is written upon the other side. After death another name is given by the priest. A dead boy is called Ryochi Doji; a dead girl, Mioyo Donyo.'

While we are speaking, the woman approaches the little shrine, opens it, arranges the objects in it, lights the tiny lamp, and with joined hands and bowed head begins to pray. Totally unembarrassed by our presence and our chatter she seems, as one accustomed to do what is right and beautiful heedless of human opinion; praying with that brave, true frankness which belongs to the poor only of this world--those simple souls who never have any secret to hide, either from each other or from heaven, and of whom Ruskin nobly said, 'These are our holiest.' I do not know what words her heart is murmuring: I hear only at moments that soft sibilant sound, made by gently drawing the breath through the lips, which among this kind people is a token of humblest desire to please.

As I watch the tender little rite, I become aware of something dimly astir in the mystery of my own life--vaguely, indefinably familiar, like a memory ancestral, like the revival of a sensation forgotten two thousand years. Blended in some strange way it seems to be with my faint knowledge of an elder world, whose household gods were also the beloved dead; and there is a weird sweetness in this place, like a shadowing of Lares.

Then, her brief prayer over, she turns to her miniature furnace again. She talks and laughs with Akira; she prepares the tea, pours it out in tiny cups and serves it to us, kneeling in that graceful attitude-- picturesque, traditional--which for six hundred years has been the attitude of the Japanese woman serving tea. Verily, no small part of the life of the woman of Japan is spent thus in serving little cups of tea. Even as a ghost, she appears in popular prints offering to somebody spectral tea-cups of spectral tea. Of all Japanese ghost-pictures, I know of none more pathetic than that in which the phantom of a woman kneeling humbly offers to her haunted and remorseful murderer a little cup of tea!

'Now let us go to the Bon-ichi,' says Akira, rising; 'she must go there herself soon, and it is already getting dark. Sayonara!'

It is indeed almost dark as we leave the little house: stars are pointing in the strip of sky above the street; but it is a beautiful night for a walk, with a tepid breeze blowing at intervals, and sending long flutterings through the miles of shop draperies. The market is in the narrow street at the verge of the city, just below the hill where the great Buddhist temple of Zoto-Kuin stands--in the Motomachi, only ten squares away.

The curious narrow street is one long blaze of lights--lights of lantern signs, lights of torches and lamps illuminating unfamiliar rows of little stands and booths set out in the thoroughfare before all the shop-fronts on each side; making two far-converging lines of multi- coloured fire. Between these moves a dense throng, filling the night with a clatter of geta that drowns even the tide-like murmuring of voices and the cries of the merchant. But how gentle the movement!- there is no jostling, no rudeness; everybody, even the weakest and smallest, has a chance to see everything; and there are many things to see.

'Hasu-no-hana!--hasu-no-hana!' Here are the venders of lotus-flowers for the tombs and the altars, of lotus leaves in which to wrap the food of the beloved ghosts. The leaves, folded into bundles, are heaped upon tiny tables; the lotus-flowers, buds and blossoms intermingled, are fixed upright in immense bunches, supported by light frames of bamboo.

'Ogara!--ogara-ya! White sheaves of long peeled rods. These are hemp- sticks. The thinner ends can be broken up into hashi for the use of the ghosts; the rest must be consumed in the mukaebi. Rightly all these sticks should be made of pine; but pine is too scarce and dear for the poor folk of this district, so the ogara are substituted.

'Kawarake!--kawarake-ya!' The dishes of the ghosts: small red shallow platters of unglazed earthenware; primeval pottery suku-makemasu!' Eh! what is all this? A little booth shaped like a sentry-box, all made of laths, covered with a red-and-white chess pattern of paper; and out of this frail structure issues a shrilling keen as the sound of leaking steam. 'Oh, that is only insects,' says Akira, laughing; 'nothing to do with the Bonku.' Insects, yes!--in cages! The shrilling is made by scores of huge green crickets, each prisoned in a tiny bamboo cage by itself. 'They are fed with eggplant and melon rind,' continues Akira, 'and sold to children to play with.' And there are also beautiful little cages full of fireflies--cages covered with brown mosquito-netting, upon each of which some simple but very pretty design in bright colours has been dashed by a Japanese brush. One cricket and cage, two cents. Fifteen fireflies and cage, five cents.

Here on a street corner squats a blue-robed boy behind a low wooden table, selling wooden boxes about as big as match-boxes, with red paper hinges. Beside the piles of these little boxes on the table are shallow dishes filled with clear water, in which extraordinary thin flat shapes are floating--shapes of flowers, trees, birds, boats, men, and women. Open a box; it costs only two cents. Inside, wrapped in tissue paper, are bundles of little pale sticks, like round match-sticks, with pink ends. Drop one into the water, it instantly unrolls and expands into the likeness of a lotus-flower. Another transforms itself into a fish. A third becomes a boat. A fourth changes to an owl. A fifth becomes a tea- plant, covered with leaves and blossoms. . . . So delicate are these things that, once immersed, you cannot handle them without breaking them. They are made of seaweed.

'Tsukuri hana!--tsukuri-hana-wa-irimasenka?' The sellers of artificial flowers, marvellous chrysanthemums and lotus-plants of paper, imitations of bud and leaf and flower so cunningly wrought that the eye alone cannot detect the beautiful trickery. It is only right that these should cost much more than their living counterparts.

High above the thronging and the clamour and the myriad fires of the merchants, the great Shingon temple at the end of the radiant street towers upon its hill against the starry night, weirdly, like a dream-- strangely illuminated by rows of paper lanterns hung all along its curving eaves; and the flowing of the crowd bears me thither. Out of the broad entrance, over a dark gliding mass which I know to be heads and shoulders of crowding worshippers, beams a broad band of yellow light; and before reaching the lion-guarded steps I hear the continuous clanging of the temple gong, each clang the signal of an offering and a prayer. Doubtless a cataract of cash is pouring into the great alms- chest; for to-night is the Festival of Yakushi-Nyorai, the Physician of Souls. Borne to the steps at last, I find myself able to halt a moment, despite the pressure of the throng, before the stand of a lantern-seller selling the most beautiful lanterns that I have ever seen. Each is a gigantic lotus-flower of paper, so perfectly made in every detail as to seem a great living blossom freshly plucked; the petals are crimson at their bases, paling to white at their tips; the calyx is a faultless mimicry of nature, and beneath it hangs a beautiful fringe of paper cuttings, coloured with the colours of the flower, green below the calyx, white in the middle, crimson at the ends. In the heart of the blossom is set a microscopic oil-lamp of baked clay; and this being lighted, all the flower becomes luminous, diaphanous--a lotus of white and crimson fire. There is a slender gilded wooden hoop by which to hang it up, and the price is four cents! How can people afford to make such things for four cents, even in this country of astounding cheapness?

Akira is trying to tell me something about the hyaku-hachino-mukaebi, the Hundred and Eight Fires, to be lighted to-morrow evening, which bear some figurative relation unto the Hundred and Eight Foolish Desires; but I cannot hear him for the clatter of the geta and the komageta, the wooden clogs and wooden sandals of the worshippers ascending to the shrine of Yakushi-Nyorai. The light straw sandals of the poorer men, the zori and the waraji, are silent; the great clatter is really made by the delicate feet of women and girls, balancing themselves carefully upon their noisy geta. And most of these little feet are clad with spotless tabi, white as a white lotus. White feet of little blue-robed mothers they mostly are--mothers climbing patiently and smilingly, with pretty placid babies at their backs, up the hill to Buddha.

And while through the tinted lantern light I wander on with the gentle noisy people, up the great steps of stone, between other displays of lotus-blossoms, between other high hedgerows of paper flowers, my thought suddenly goes back to the little broken shrine in the poor woman's room, with the humble playthings hanging before it, and the laughing, twirling mask of Otafuku. I see the happy, funny little eyes, oblique and silky-shadowed like Otafuku's own, which used to look at those toys,--toys in which the fresh child-senses found a charm that I can but faintly divine, a delight hereditary, ancestral. I see the tender little creature being borne, as it was doubtless borne many times, through just such a peaceful throng as this, in just such a lukewarm, luminous night, peeping over the mother's shoulder, softly clinging at her neck with tiny hands.

Somewhere among this multitude she is--the mother. She will feel again to-night the faint touch of little hands, yet will not turn her head to look and laugh, as in other days.


[1] It is related in the same book that Ananda having asked the Buddha how came Mokenren's mother to suffer in the Gakido, the Teacher replied that in a previous incarnation she had refused, through cupidity, to feed certain visiting priests.

[2] A deity of good fortune

[The end]
Lafcadio Hearn's essay: At The Market Of The Dead