Jerel Says, ‘Ato no matsuri’; Organize

Obon Night

Ato no matsuri

Translation: The day after the festival (to be late, to miss one’s chance)

-Japanese proverb

Every August, for three days, the Japanese celebrate the bon festival, otherwise known as Obon. It is one of the most important Japanese traditions: a time when many Japanese return to their hometowns to honor their dead relatives.

Festival Crowd

The origin of Obon comes from the story of Mokuren, one of Buddha’s disciples. Mokuren used his psychic powers to look for his deceased parents to see in what world they had been reborn. Dismayed at finding his mother in the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts, he went to Buddha to ask how he might save her. Buddha instructed him to make offerings to the many Buddhist monks who finished their summer retreat on the fifteenth day of the seventh month (eighth in the Gregorian calendar, hence August and not July). In doing so Mokuren was able to rescue his mother. Looking into his mother’s past, he also began to see and appreciate her kindness and the many sacrifices she had made for him. Overjoyed and grateful not only for his mother’s rescue but for her selflessness, Mokuren began to celebrate and dance. His dance became known as bon odori, or simply the ‘bon  dance, which is still one of the major aspects of the bon festival to this day.

Bon Dance

I’m pretty fortunate that there is a rather large Japanese demographic where I live, and Edgewater, NJ is home to the largest Mitsuwa Japanese Marketplace in the country. These two things combined mean that every year around the 15th of August our Mitsuwa holds a giant summer festival in honor of Obon and it never fails to draw an enormous crowd. I even ran into an old coworker from my glory days working at Blockbuster and an old classmate and former club member from college. It was nice to run into old friends and catch up for a bit while enjoying a whole assortment of Japanese summer treats. There were all kinds of treats to enjoy. I had an assortment of grilled seafood, grilled chicken skewers, takoyaki (fried dough filled with octopus), yakisoba (fried noodles), okonomiyaki (Japanese style pancakes), squid pancakes with fried eggs, gyudon (rice bowls with simmered beef and onions), gyoza (Japanese dumplings), and desserts like shaved ice and mochi (sticky rice dough filled with ice cream).

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There were games where you could win prizes by shooting targets with a plastic toy bow or if you could get plastic rings caught on wooden pegs. On others you had a tiny net with a thin strip of paper and you had to delicately try to catch toys floating in a kiddie pool. Still others had a whole assortment of prizes attached to pieces of string and on the other side you had to grab one and pull and find out just which prize you ended up pulling out. You could also buy a variety of plastic Japanese festival masks. Some were the traditional demons and gods while others were things like superhero masks from Japanese television shows or even Pokemon.

Throughout the day, local Japanese cultural clubs and societies put on different displays and demonstrations. One was the trademark bon odori with singing and dancing and bells and spinning hats and parasols. The other was a taiko drumming performance. There was something really therapeutic and de-stressing about watching the flurry of sticks and movements and the yelling and the deep thunderous roar of drumbeats.

Taiko Drums.jpg

It really was a huge community event and not just for the Japanese (obviously, since I’m Grilled Seafood 2Filipino). You see a lot of people enjoying the summer festival every year. It’s not uncommon to see a couple young kids from high school and college anime clubs doing cosplay and showing up dressed as their favorite characters. There are plenty of families and it’s adorable to see little kids dressed up in yukata and kimono (traditional Japanese festival wear). I can’t tell you how many times I probably fell in love with some of the young women dressed in kimono as well. Whole generations of families, grandparents, parents, and children, Okonomiyakiwere enjoying the festival together. Some were celebrating their culture, others were learning about an entirely new and different one from their own. Plenty of couples, groups of friends, all different kinds of people coming together not just to enjoy, but tons of volunteers of all different ethnicities running booths and helping to organize the event behind the scenes as well.

In the US the summer festival is a fun celebration of Japanese culture and food. Mainly food. It’s a nice community event, but it’s obviously more about the surface level things like food, toys, and fun cultural displays. But I like to remember the spiritual origins that Ohakamairi.pngare still major in Japan. See the story of Mokuren ended up taking on a very specific and influential meaning in Japan. It became a story of honoring one’s ancestors and celebrating and appreciating family. Over the three days of the bon festival the dead are allowed to return to the realm of the living. Families clean their houses in preparation and hang lanterns to guide the spirits back home. They also visit their ancestor’s gravestones to place offerings such as food and incense and also to clean them up every year by brushing away dirt and leaves and washing them with water. This is known as ohakamairi. On the last day of the festival families light paper lanterns and set them afloat into rivers to send their ancestors’ spirits back off into the afterlife. It’s a beautiful tradition that fills Japan’s rivers at night with floating lanterns that is just surreal and serene and at times equally somber but also celebratory, remembering our family members who’ve since moved on.

Bon Lanterns.png

Obon is definitely a beautiful and wonderful time to reflect on family and to honor the people who’ve moved on. But I also think it’s an especially important time to remember to appreciate life and the moments we have, because we never know when it’s ‘ato no matsuri’. There is a Buddhist teaching that says that the most universal message the dead have to give us is that death will come for all equally. Kings, peasants, rich, poor. Obon is a surreal, magical time where the infinite divide between the living and the dead is shrunk just a little. We feel closer to the people who’ve moved on, who we miss and who were huge parts of our lives. Maybe it’s nice to think that there is this time where we might be visited by them, that they haven’t entirely left us and we can bring them home. Or maybe it’s just nice to have this festival to set aside time for us to reflect and remember them and honor their memories. But it’s also an important lesson that the best thing we can do is to live our lives fully and well, and to leave a mark on the world that our families and friends might remember in the future, so that years from now, they might light a lantern for us.

Jerel says, don’t wait until the day after the festival.

Day 37: The Man and the Secret Path

Back when Beautiful and I were in college I used to take her at night to the park in my town. We’d park on the side street parallel to the park’s lake and sneak in long after the park had closed. There was this one perfect location right by the lake, a secret section. The path to it was hidden by two weeping willows and it was hidden from the view of cars (and security) passing by because of some reeds. I would take her there past midnight and we would lie on the stone paver looking up at the stars. We would talk about love and forever and fears and our family and we’d know that our deepest secrets would be safe between us, the moon, and the stars.

I haven’t been back to this park since college. Even in our brief time together again we never really had a chance to come back, during the day or at night. But, because of Pokestops, gyms, and a general lack of direction or purpose, I found myself back here today. The park was packed today. There were definitely some roving gangs of Pokemon trainers, but just in general the weather was great for families and couples to be walking around and enjoying the weekend. I am more used to the eerie quiet and solitude of the park at night. I needed to be here though. The noise distracted from the monologue inside my head and the warm sunlight felt good on my skin. I even found myself enjoying the sensation of perspiration beading on my forehead and the small bits of dirt and stone that crept into my shoes and hurt my feet.

I feel bad, because I didn’t post yesterday. And I didn’t post because I was busy with friends or out living an adventure. I didn’t post because my arms were limp, my mind was doubtful, and my will was shot. I barely left my bed yesterday. I had no meetups planned with friends, I didn’t feel like going to church or eating with my family, for the first time in a while I was alone by choice, not by work or circumstance, and in the face of it I reeled back in insecurity and hid in bed. I did nothing yesterday and felt purposeless and it only fueled more feelings of loss.

A year ago today maybe I would have been on tinder, or OkCupid, or CoffeeMeetsBagel. Maybe I would be meeting up with some cute girl from the city or at a mall with a Jersey girl. For better or for worse, it gave me something to do, something to look forward to. Now I am on my own and have to find my own purpose to move forward. I need to ask myself what I want, how I want to pursue it, and where I should go to find it. I can’t rely on some app to tell me my new next purpose is less than 10 miles away, or that all I need to do is swipe right, or fill out some questionnaire to tell me that what I want is 95% compatible with who I am. I’m not hungry enough yet. I’m not driven. I’ve been beaten down to the ground and I have yet to discover if I have the gumption to get back up. Not focusing on pursuing a new relationship is going to be good for me, of that I have no doubt. But it is going to destroy me first before it can ever rebuild me into something better, stronger, more resolute. And in the meanwhile, I have realized that along with highlighting a departure from prioritizing new relationships, I have to learn to let go of the past ones. I cannot remain living haunted by the events of the past two months. I am lost, wrecked, clinging to flotsam and jetsam, and I cannot focus on looking to a new shore until I shake off the debris that still clings to my leg. My head is just barely above the water at this point.

Relationships were a pleasant distraction. They diverted my gaze from everything else in my life, even past relationships themselves. It’s been easier to get over old flames by lighting up new ones. I didn’t care about shitty jobs because rather than leave it or fix it I had someone to complain to. I never missed the lack of relationship with my father or my relatives because I spent all my time with my girlfriend anyways. I never worked on strengthening bonds and discovering shared interests and hobbies with friends because what I wanted to do, I held back and did it with her. There’s so much in my life I need to fix. So much I can work on. So many areas to improve. My life could absolutely be better, and if I could just get over this obstacle, forget about Beautiful and not worry about where or when or who my next relationship is, I could be happy.

Secret Path.jpgThere is a reason and a result and a goal. But there is no purpose. I don’t feel worth the effort. I don’t find myself wanting this for myself. I’ve never wanted for myself. I’ve only ever wanted so that I could have for someone. I want to see the end of the tunnel. I want to tell myself it’s worth it. I will come back to this secret area again. Alone. And I’ll keep going until it’s mine again, not hers, not ours. And after that, when I’m ready, and prepared, and worthy, I’ll make it someone else’s too. Right now I just need to remember what it feels like to be hungry for change, for better, for me.

Day 37

Man: 25 Loneliness: 12

Day 35: The Man and the City of Brotherly Love

Reading Terminal.jpgI was thrilled that my work would send me to Philadelphia again. I had just been there about a month ago. Last time I got to stay by the waterfront, walking distance to Market Street where my go-to cheesesteak place is (Sonny’s) and the Franklin Fountain for ice cream afterwards. Now I would be visiting Central Philly by Reading Terminal Market.

The City of Brotherly Love was a landmark for Beautiful and I. I started my love affair with the city when I brought her here back in college. We were dirt broke, just kids, and a day trip to Philly was like a week in Monte Cristo. It was a big, bright, and beautiful adventure. Waking up early that morning, heading out. First time heading to Philly, we had the GPS, our cell phones, and I even printed out directions from MapQuest (blast from the past much). We were excited and giddy. We had no idea what to expect. No plans, no schedule, just pure exploration. We got into the city around noon and parked at the Visitor’s Center. Went in, checked out some of the exhibits, and played with the toy muskets in the gift shop. It was actually the woman at the Visitor’s Center who gave us the map of the city and recommended Sonny’s. We saw the name ‘Philadelphia Magic Gardens’ and had no idea what to expect so we decided to check it out as well. Taking the bus, wandering, seeing the foundation of Benjamin Franklin’s original dwelling, we were living it up on a nonexistent budget. Lunch at Sonny’s, a brat at Brauhaus Schmitz across the street from the Magic Gardens, and pho at Pho Ha, which is still my staple for best pho in the country. Since then I’ve been to Singapore, Saint Lucia, Cabo, Jamaica, Toronto, etc. No trip has touched my soul more than that first visit to Philly. We took control of our destinies that day. I’ve never again traveled so freely and with so little reservation and expectation.

Traveling with limited resources meant we had to be creative. We split a cheesesteak at Sonny’s, we split a brat at Brauhaus, we had student discounts at the Magic Gardens, and we only sampled the ice cream at the Franklin Fountain. So when we got back together this year and I wanted to take her back to Philly for Valentine’s, I knew I wanted it to be bigger. I wanted to reflect the time that had passed and how much we had grown but at the same time recreate some of the magic of our first visit. This Valentine’s was one of my most ambitious plans yet and also one of my favorites. For a bleeding-heart romantic, I was on top of my game. It could never be anything less than perfect for my Beautiful.

It started on Saturday night, after I finished at work. I rushed home, changed, grabbed my bag, and went to pick Beautiful up. The sun was beginning to set and we had a beautiful backdrop of sky as we went down to Philly. Our first stop would be Pho Ha to warm ourselves up. If you recall, this past February was ridiculously cold. I loved it but she definitely needed some warmth. What Beautiful didn’t know was that I had secretly brought along seven individually wrapped long-stem roses that I would surprise her with along our journey. We had our delicious pho, and while she was in the restroom (I can always count on her tiny bladder) I rushed to the car, took out one of the roses, and in very hurried broken English explained to my waiter that I wanted him to bring out the rose and present it to her when I asked for the check. She had no idea. Afterwards she told me that as the waiter approached with the check and the rose she thought it was sweet that our waiter had a date and was probably on his way out after giving us the bill. When he handed the rose to her instead and the restaurant started clapping I have never seen her face so red with embarrassment. It sounds almost cruel but that alone was so totally worth it. It was adorable and sweet and it went off without a hitch and I loved her. Afterwards we checked in to the Hilton Penn’s Landing (highly recommended, the only waterfront hotel in Philly with a great view and excellent location) where, once again, unbeknownst to her I had already coordinated with the concierge to have another rose presented to her upon check in. That’s two so far. I had her put the room key in and enter first. This way she could see that I had also arranged for the petals of a dozen roses to be scattered across the room. A trail of petals led from the door to the bed where there were more arranged in a giant heart on the bedsheets. The bathroom was also adorned with petals around the sink and the bathtub. We didn’t linger too long in the room (yet) as I wanted to take her to a new attraction very seasonally appropriate, the Waterfront Winterfest right across the street. Firepits, little private mini-cabins, spiked hot chocolate, an ice rink and a giant Christmas tree, we snuggled against a fireplace with hot cocoa and listened to the music from the rink. I stroked her hair and kept her warm in my embrace. After a bit we walked to Market Street to pick up some cheesesteaks (we were big on the midnight snack thing). In case you didn’t already expect it, I of course had planned this part of the itinerary as well so another rose was waiting there for her. Three, not counting the petals in the room. We went back, I opened a bottle of champagne I had chilling in the fridge, and we feasted on cheesesteaks and chocolate strawberries that I had brought from home. We toasted to our love, laughed, and exchanged gifts. She gave me romantic scratcher cards, playing on my love of gambling and assorted amorous activities. I had bought her a book, Totto-Chan the Little Girl at the Window, about a young girl who goes to a very unique school, and I was going to read her a chapter each night on the phone or in person. That night we had incredible, passionate, loving sex on a bed of roses. I held her against me and we made ourselves inseparable. I fell asleep inside her with her clinging to my arms, her head buried in my chest.

Love Philly Then.jpgThe next morning we had breakfast at the Franklin Fountain. Warm apple cider and apple pie with ice cream. I told her to ask for the ‘Beautiful special’ and it came with another rose. I had woken up an hour before her and ran to every spot we were going to hit that day. After breakfast we went shopping for chocolates and candies at Shaw’s Candies. Another ‘Beautiful special’, another rose. Took a picture in front of the LOVE statue in Philly. It was freezing that day and her cheeks were so red. Nearby was Reading Terminal Market where we walked, browsed, perused wares, and had our lunch. No need for a big plan here, there’s a florist in the market so I simply purchased a rose on the spot for her. We were able to catch a few wedding ceremonies being performed inside as well. If you haven’t been, you absolutely have to check this space out. There are so many different vendors all with their own style and specialty. We visited the Magic Gardens, just like in college, and when Beautiful got her ticket, there was a rose that came along with it too. So if you don’t know, the Magic Gardens is a giant indoor outdoor mural project started by a local Philly artist using bits of recycled materials. Glass bottles, broken tiles, bike wheels, all of these are valid mediums for what has become a living artwork, slowly growing and spreading beyond the borders of the artist’s work space, which is a modest indoor studio and an outdoor exhibit. We ended the night at the same place we went to so long ago when we could only afford one brat for the two of us, a romantic Valentine’s dinner at Brauhaus Schmitz, a wonderfully authentic and lively German restaurant and bierhaus with an excellent array of cured meats, sausages, and of course, beer. And you know a rose came for her when the bill came for me.

I loved planning that weekend. One night and one day in Philly and we were able to do so much, share so much between us and our love. I believed I had truly made her happy that weekend. And I thought it would last.

Love Philly Now.jpgHow do I express to her how I am not just haunted by the ghosts of our past when I visit this city. How do I tell her that the city I had turned into her giant living Valentine was now just a cold, dead grave marker. Someone else now stands happily in front of the LOVE statue. I have to create new memories in this city because the old ones I have I cannot even enjoy or relish anymore. It is not that she left, it is the nature and the way in which she left that has robbed me of even the pleasure of our memories. When she left she took everything with her, and what she left behind has been so tainted I no longer want it. I thought I was enough. Or at least more than what she had. I am not even missed. I am left because she misses someone else. Someone else she left. She is forgetful and will be racing to create new memories. So as bitter as they are in my mouth, I have to protect these. I have to save all these images and reminders, because I worked so hard to create something beautiful for someone who did not want me or my creations. To lose these forever would hurt me still more. So I hold on to and cling to these painful memories because no one else will and because I truly believe it is worth remembering. Maybe all those people who I involved in my crazy Valentine’s plan will remember bits and pieces. I wonder if they ever stop and talk to their coworkers or friends and wonder what happened to the couple with the guy who ran across the city with roses. He is still running. He still believes in roses. He just has no destination anymore. I still love Philly. And when I am in the city I feel the city loves me too. I have only respect and care and affection for it. But my memories there are right now stained.

I never did get to finish reading the book to Beautiful. And I have no desire to find out the ending on my own. So it stands, unfinished, unappreciated, buried among the rest of my books in my library.

Day 35

Man: 25 Loneliness: 10