You are looking down onto an altar of food--offerings to Masaki's dead father and brother. I slept over at the Yanagi's house last night after visiting the shrine for new years, and awoke with the family this morning at 7:00 to participate in the hohji, 法事、or Remembrance. Can you see the cigarette they kept burning for the father? He was a heavy smoker.
Mrs. Yanagi must have slaved away all night. Everything looked beautiful!
That is her daughter, Ari, drinking orange juice in the back.
For an hour and a half the entire family spent time offering sake and blessing every dish individually. There were over forty kinds of food. First the boys went. Each member poured some very expensive sake for the father, blessed it with incense, put the shot down in front of the picture, balanced the chopsticks on the top of another dish, prostrated, removed the sake, poured it into the pot, and repeated. "You better remember how to do this," Masaki's uncle told him as he waved the sake cup in counter-clockwise circles above the burning incense. "I know." Masaki replied, rolling his eyes. The 18-year-old boy has a lot of responsibility now. Interestingly, the ladies in the family prostrated differently from the men. They held their hands palms-out in front of their faces as they lowered their heads down to the floor. It was very strange, but beautiful. The men kept there hands at prayer before lowering their heads, hands generally by ears. How many of them actually prayed and remembered the dead during the prostration? Who knows. Maybe they just counted to three. The symbolic gesture is still important, though.
And blessed food just tastes better.
At the end Mrs. Yanagi and her sister took bite-size pieces out of every dish and tossed them into a bowl with some sake and rice, which Masaki, only son and unofficial "leader" of the cerimony, took to the river and scattered to the wind. I got the honor of being able to go with the leader to the river to make the offering.
"This is such a pain in the ass." he said on the way down.
"It's freezing out here."
I agreed, but then added that since he has to do this two or three times every year anyway, he might as well make it into a spiritual practice of patience, remembrance, ritual, and appreciation. "That's what I would do, so that it's not a total waste of time." =)
Masaki's aunt later told me,
"The food you offered into the river with Masaki this morning does not represent a meal for his father and brother, you know. The great meal for them was offered here this morning! No, the food offered to the river is a gesture for all the dead people who aren't fortunate enough to have families to do this remembrance for them. And that is very important--Remember appreciation."
By the time we got back from the river, all the food had been moved from the altar and the sake and beer had been poured. 10:30 AM, time to feast and get drunk.
This was a traditional Korean hohji. Notice how there are no plates--only small dishes of sauce. Everyone eats directly from the center.