Thursday, August 16, 2007

Celebrating the Urabon Festival and Toronagashi

The Urabon or Bon Festival is a Buddhist festival that is celebrated in the middle of August in Japan. Like the ancient European festival of Samhain at the end of October, it is believed that during this time the spirits of the ancestors return to this world in order to visit their families. It is said that the iron pot of hell is opened to allow the dead to return to this world.

Lanterns are placed in front of houses in order to guide the ancestors to their homes. Dances known as bon odori are performed, graves are visited and offerings of food are made both at temples and at altars in the home.

The food offerings are an integral part of the rituals and include rice, vegetables, fruits, cakes, sweets and flowers. Special foods are served to visitors as well.

The festival culminates usually with a very touching and dramatic ceremony known as Toronagashi wherein floating lanterns are placed in the waters of streams, lakes and/or the ocean in order to guide the ancestor spirits back to their world.

Unable to travel to Japan to participate or witness this festival, I was overjoyed when I was able to participate in it virtually in Second Life. Last night was the night of the Toronagashi, the final ritual of the festival.

Arriving at the virtual Japanese sim of Amatsu Mitsukai at twilight, I overheard a woman weeping as she told her companion about the recent death of a loved one. At the landing place, billboards advertised traditional food offerings and a rickshaw offered a tour of the area.

We walked instead through a mall containing a number of Japanese shops that sold clothing, weapons and other items to reach a rather imposing building with a notice welcoming visitors. Inside were beautifully apportioned rooms with paintings on the walls. One had to pass through the house to reach the gardens.

The gardens were breathtaking, featuring an elegant gazebo and a traditional arched bridge leading to the edge of the water. A small stream flowed from a mountaintop and it was there that the Toronagashi ceremony took place.

A notice next to the stream invited visitors to say a prayer for the dead before launching a paper boat into the water. As the sun set over the sea and colourful birds swooped down over the brilliantly-coloured trees and plants, I actually began to believe that I was in Japan again. As I said a prayer for my father before launching the first boat, I realised that the prayer as well as the ritual was very real. I understood very well why the woman had been weeping...

A ceremony of commemoration like this always carries an element of mourning and sorrow, but with the bittersweet remembrance of our loved ones is a benediction of peace.

I felt privileged to be able to participate in a Toronagashi ceremony, even if only in a virtual Japanese setting in Second Life. It was a magical experience I shall not forget and I wonder if it would have been any more significant to me in Japan. After all, part of the value of any experience is what we ourselves bring to it.

Incidentally, traditional geisha training is given at Amatsu Mitsukai. I met a talented artist named Pop Handrick who is studying to be a geisha. At present, she is only Shikomi. One of the many lessons taught is humility. It is interesting to see how different individuals respond to the possibilities that exist in Second Life. For some, SL is an opportunity to be masters or mistresses of their own destiny. For others, true satisfaction is found in obedience and humility. Of course, it is not as simple as that for any one. All human beings are multi-faceted and part of the attraction of Second Life is the ability to shapeshift at will.


MarcLord said...

Dear Hawk of Freya,

This is very cool. I lived in Japan for a time after college, and liked the sanctity of their rituals. I was invited to be a participant in Hakata Yamakasa, and it taught me more about Japanese culture than any single thing before or since.

Technical question: when you say, you "overheard a woman weeping," in what medium did you hear her? Through her actual voice, through text, or via some other means?

I am helping to make a way for Second Life users to re-create their real voices or buy other synthetic voices, so they can play the text they type. What do you think?


Freyashawk said...

Dear Marc,

I had no idea that you still were involved in 'virtual realities'. In fact, there is a new 'voice' option in Second Life, but I have been unable to explore it yet. I have been having what people euphemistically call 'issues' with my laptop, which translates into 'almost fatal problems' in my own case. I believe that there is a new option now in SL to use one's actual voice in 'Chat' or 'IM' but again, without having had the chance to try it, I know very little about it, apart from the fact that, like so many aspects of Second Life, it often is 'down' or otherwise disabled.

Freyashawk said...

P.S. When I 'overheard' the woman, it was in the form of text as a 'Chat' message to her companion. 'Chat' is displayed to every one in the area. IM is used for private conversations in SL.