Every year, when we visit Japan, we often pay respect to my wife’s deceased relatives and ancestors. This is a common practice in Japan called ohakamairi (お墓参り) where ohaka just means a grave, while mairu is the humble version of “to go” or “to come”. People in Japan, like other Confucian cultures,1 will often visit their ancestors graves at certain times a year such as Ohigan and Obon. But, since my wife lives overseas, we do ohakamairi when we visit Japan.
Compared to Western culture, ohakamairi is more formal, more ritualized so if you married into Japanese culture, or just want to pay respects to someone, it’s good to know how to do this properly.
I am not an expert, but I’ve seen this done a several times, so I am a bit familiar.
Japanese graves are larger and more elaborate than the simple “headstone” used in American culture:
Instead, Japanese graves look more like obelisks:
A typical Japanese grave will have:
- An obelisk with the persons name.
- Two metal flower vases, one on each side.
- A small box in the front for putting incense.
So, when you visit the ancestor’s grave, it’s important to clean up a bit. My wife’s family will often bring a bucket of water with a ladle. First, we clean any debris from the gravesite, remove old, dead flowers and put in fresh, new ones. Then, using the water and ladle, we pour it on top of the obelisk and the surrounding area to clean off any dirt and grime. Graves can get dirty pretty quick, especially when they’re under trees where dead leaves fall. So, it’s the family’s obligation (in a Confucian sense) to honor the dead by keeping their grave neat and tidy.
Once the grave is cleaned off, we take a box of incense (available at any temple) and divide it up. We each get a small handful of incense sticks, and we take turns lighting them, and putting them in the small box in the front. The box has a metal grill in it so the burning incense is not touching the ground (and doesn’t get extinguished).
As we offer the incense, we also put our hands together in gassho which is a generic, Buddhist gesture of respect and bow our heads for a moment.
Another blogger, Heenai Heenai (which hasn’t been updated lately), has a nice post with photos to explain this.
Anyhow, ohakamairi is not difficult to do, but is more ritualistic than what we do in Western culture2 so it’s good to get familiar if have married into the culture,3 or just want to pay respects.
P.S. Speaking of Obon….
2 I kind of feel bad because I haven’t visited my grandparents’ graves in years, even though I can get there by car within one hour.
3 Something that really annoys me is Western men who marry Japanese women (or Asian in general), but are completely clueless about the culture and language, and are too lazy, or too prideful to learn. I’m not an expert, but since I married my wife, I feel it was fair to make a good effort to learn the culture and language. I am glad I did.