Japanese Afterlife

I spent most of my final year in Japan in Kagoshima—a southern Kyushu city nestled in the shadow of Sakurajima volcano. The mount looms large across the bay, alive and raining its sooty outbursts upon the city below at regular intervals.

I found my apartment, gasping under a thick coat of volcanic ash. Plumes of black pillowed from the kotatsu blanket whenever disturbed. It wafted like ancestral spirits around a butsudan shrine, a living personality in itself. Housekeeping couldn’t be vigilant enough.

Kagoshima folk wisely don’t despise their volcano. Sakurajima simply is--and she’s a beauty. Her cherry trees beat all I have ever seen. The fields in Kagoshima’s surrounds grow rich, courtesy of the volcano’s sooty fertilizer. The volcano herself rises up in a cone over the bay, as if to glance at her breathtaking image upon the water.

To some, the spirit of the archipelago is best captured in the morning, during the rub and bustle of the workaday commute. And it may be true. In most cities in Japan, the sun’s rising releases a tide of commuters wide and deep, often departing on witheringly long, three legged journeys. Skirted women on bicycles, pedaling madly in perfect cosmetic and hose. Bees. Ants. Japanese salarymen. Massive industry and orderly work ethic.

Now picture Kagoshima in a morning ash storm. Suddenly an umbrella wall expands to block the ashy downpour. These are savvy commuters. They take the extra chaos in a stride. I was never good at riding a bicycle one handed, teetering along gripping the handlebar with my left hand and brandishing an umbrella with my right--not like Mary Poppins--more like her chimney sweep friend Bert, ash coating my scalp, and clumping in my nostrils. I never could manage it stylishly, though it seemed so many really could. I shouldn’t go on in this vein. There are better tributes to the smoking beauty than her storms.

There’s this weird, but probing, Japanese film about a waystation between earth and the afterlife—government funded. Think post office with rigid bureaucracy and severe budget constraints. The waystation staff help the passing souls decide upon their favorite earth life memory, then recreate it and ensconce the dead in their erstwhile bliss for eternity. There are good points and bad to this kind of life’s resolution, but let’s take it on board for argument’s sake. If I could choose one sensory memory from my life in Japan, it would include a view of Sakurajima in the spring.

If you’re willing to climb high enough above the valley, you can avoid the crowds during cherry blossom viewing season. When I say climb in Kagoshima, I do mean climb. We cycled up a mountain, switching back through tunnels, thighs burning, mounting up to an orchard high above the city with a perfect cross bay view of Sakurajima. Blossoms open to their peak, fragrant pink and glossy with dew. Tranquilly innocent of picnickers.

To be sure, our mountain trees were younger—nothing like the gorgeously gnarled, sage trunks of the valley trees, but the young blossoms were just as pretty. And our view of Sakurajima was exquisite… almost otherworldly--except that it was so sublimely Japan that it really couldn’t be any other world.