Did you know ...?

I had a fun experience today, of a type that happens more often than one might expect. I was talking about this and that with one of my staff printers (a Japanese lady somewhat younger than myself), and at one point I used a Japanese word that she did not understand. Now it's certainly not uncommon at all for people to fail to understand something I have said; my Japanese can be quite 'broken' at times, and is far from being as good as it should be, considering how long I have been living here. But on this occasion, there was nothing wrong with my speech; simply she had never heard of the thing I was talking about.

I had been telling her about a British friend of mine who lives in central Japan, and how this man had built a suikinkutsu when renovating the old farmhouse in which he and his wife have lived for many years. She had no idea what I was talking about, and at first, assumed that I was making some kind of language error. But I persisted, convinced that I was correct, and then used a nearby computer to do a quick internet search to bring up some material to illustrate my description.

A suikinkutsu is a large ceramic jar buried upside down in the ground in a Japanese garden. It is located near a stone water basin, and as you wash your hands at that spot, some of the water running onto the ground seeps down and falls through a small hole at the top of the jar, dripping into a pool inside, where it creates faint bell-like tones as the sounds echo inside the buried jar.

All in all, suikinkutsu are quite complicated things to build, so they are not usually found in a home garden, but more commonly in large temple gardens. It's thus not so unusual that my acquaintance had never run across one before, although I do find it unusual that she had never even heard of them.

I said a minute ago that this sort of experience happens fairly often, and indeed, this was the second such event just this week. A few days before, we had watched from our workshop windows while some workmen installed a new grave marker in the garden across the river from us. Old Tamura-san passed away last autumn, and although his cremated remains had been buried in the family plot shortly thereafter, it was only now that the stone was being installed.

The new stone is a multi-generational type. Tamura-san's name and dates are carved at one side of the wide front panel, and the rest of the space is left open, to be used in the future for other family members.

After the installation was complete, I mentioned casually that "It seems that the family has decided not to include his wife's name yet ..." The staff members present reacted to my comment with some shock - "What kind of ridiculous idea is that? She's not dead!"

But there was no reason for them to say this, because the practice of carving the name of the surviving spouse on the headstone is (or perhaps 'was') not unusual at all in this country, being done that way to save time and expense. To make it clear to anybody reading the stone that the person is actually not yet deceased, the carving of the second name is filled in with red pigment. In due course, when this spouse does pass away and is interred there, the pigment is scrubbed out.

Again, none of the staff members had heard of such a thing, and again, a bit of internet research demonstrated to them that I knew what I was talking about.

So there you go; you too are now the possessor of some 'off the beaten track' snippets of Japanese cultural knowledge. Amaze your Japanese friends!


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