The ancestor’s spirit rides in on the green cucumber horse, and after three days when it’s time to leave, it goes home nice and relaxed on the purple eggplant horse, says Tetsuo Takezaki, Buddhist altar salesman. You see, the cucumber is thin and fast; it comes quickly. The eggplant is fat and more comfortable.
A lively, gently spoken man, Takezaki is standing at the open door to his shop, Saraya, on the Tawaramachi intersection, explaining what’s in the makomo ancestor-spirit welcoming kit for O-bon, the three-day Buddhist feast of the dead that ends August 15. He says, There’s also this straw rope to string across the altar – or you can put up some hozuki Chinese lantern plants, that’s what they would have used before lanterns – and this straw mat you spread on the offering table and put out some dishes like these food samples, to give thanks, and then there are some sticks that you chop up and burn in a ceramic dish at your front door at the beginning and end, to welcome and send off your spirits.
It’s pretty new. See, it opens like a magnolia!
The brightest accessories are the Bon chochin lanterns, made in Gifu prefecture with lampshades of washi paper and silk. Some have blue and multi-coloured cylinders that balance on a needle tip above the lightbulb and spin from the heat, throwing cooling shadows on the walls. The craftsmen handpaint plant motifs. The flowers are ones that bloom in autumn. You won’t see summer flowers like morning glory, says Takezaki, they make you think of hot weather. The standard Bon lantern to position by the altar is the portable andon, about a metre tall. But Takezaki says the bestsellers now are the miniature ones. He says, People don’t have space, they think these small ones are cute.
He seems particularly partial to a squat, somewhat clunky wooden tabletop model that he’s happy to demonstrate. He says, It’s pretty new. See, it opens like a magnolia!
Bon lanterns are necessary to show the spirits where to come home to, says Takezaki. At least, he says…that’s what they say.
There are other lanterns too, plain white, free of motifs but with delicate patterns in the washi. They’re Nii Bon lanterns, says Takezaki, for spirits experiencing their first ever o-bon – for families with wounds still fresh. They’re only used once. The white seems to stand for a more intense absence.
In two days Takezaki will put the lanterns away, and then take his own Bon holiday. For another year, Saraya will look like the dozens of Buddhist furniture stores lining Asakusa-dori from here to Inaricho, the next station on. As you leave he gives you a pamphlet, a single sheet that explains Bon “in 2 minutes” with colourful illustrations that make setting it up look a little like Christmas.