Family Shrines

In most Japanese homes, there is a shrine to honor one’s ancestors. It may be small (one foot tall, one foot wide, and half a foot deep), or it may be grand and approach the size of a small wardrobe.

It is usually made of dark wood, sometimes with a black lacquer finish, and with doors that may be closed. Some people say a short prayer to their shrine every day, others practice more significant acts of reverence to their shrine and the ancestors it represents.

_dsc0406I was very happy to see my cousin’s family shrine. He is the oldest of my cousins (being the first-born of my eldest aunt), and I am the youngest (the third and final child of my mother, who was the youngest my grandparents bore). I never knew Ogiisan (grandpa), although he lived in Hood River, Oregon for most of his life, because he died only a year after I was born. (Grandma died a year before I was born.) Grandpa gave my cousin his little shrine, about 60 years ago or more.

So to see and touch it, and see it in active use gave me a another little connection to my grandpa. My cousin opened it and said a little prayer every morning. Inside, he kept a small wallet-sized photo album that included pictures of my grandparents, his mother (whom he never knew), my mother when she was in college and with my oldest brother as an infant (in both pictures she is younger than I am today), and many youthful pictures of my cousins. I was happy to see all these pictures, many of which I’d never seen before.

In Iwata, at the home of the relatives who run a Buddhist temple, the large family shrine was left open and all the omiyage (gifts) we brought were first placed just inside it before they were consumed. I didn’t see them placed there, but walking past the shrine, I saw a little stack of the goodies we had brought, waiting to be consumed later that day or perhaps on the day following.

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Family shrine with gifts we brought placed before it.

Space is limited in a Japanese home. Many doors are sliding panels, and rooms are often converted for both daytime and nighttime use. There is seldom clutter, simply because there isn’t room for unnecessary bric-a-brac and tchotchkes.

This is one reason food items make good gifts: They don’t take up valuable space after being presented. But a family shrine and the reverence for one’s ancestors is allowed some precious, permanent space in most homes in Japan.

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