Lingering outside the way station for the dead


Special To The Japan Times

It’s a hardy soul who braves Osorezan (Mount Osore), a volcano in Aomori Prefecture known as the Japanese way station for the dead. For most, the name conjures up images of the supernatural and the unknown, but for Marie Mutsuki Mockett, it is a place of healing and beauty.

Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye, by Marie Mutsuki Mockett
W. W. Norton & Company, Nonfiction.

In her new book, “Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye,” Mockett takes an illuminating journey into grief and Japanese culture, a place that few would dare to venture.

Fitting for a book that unveils a place between worlds, Mockett’s telling sits in-between genres. Part memoir, part introduction to Buddhist practices in Japan, part travelogue, Mockett’s book becomes a resting place: for the bereaved, the Japanophile or for any inquisitive soul.

Raised in California by her Japanese mother and American father, Mockett admits she has long been interested in cultural byways.

“You can’t go to an old Buddhist temple from the time you are four without noticing tombstones and appreciating o-Bon (the yearly festival welcoming ancestors home) or lighting incense every morning,” Mockett tells The Japan Times. Her family in Japan own a temple in Fukushima Prefecture (only 40 km from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant), and her vacations in Japan were spent naturally exploring the spiritual side of Japan.

Mockett is thankful for her family’s insistence on a multicultural upbringing, something not so common in 1970s America. The charge was led by her grandparents, particularly her paternal grandmother, who funded those childhood trips to Japan, and her maternal grandfather, who battled misgivings about intercultural marriage to share his heritage.

“My grandfather loved the Shinto pantheon, he loved nature; we spent many summers walking up to some Shinto shrine. My summers meant sleeping in mosquito nets or the smell of the burning repellent coils, the outhouse toilet, heating the bath by burning wood; it was so old fashioned.”

In February 2011 — almost two years after the publication of her first book the award-winning novel “Picking Bones from Ash” — Mockett found herself at a crossroads in life. Her beloved father had died unexpectedly, first-time author insecurities clouded the success of her book, and as a new mother she found herself battling a myriad of griefs, including postpartum depression. A month later, the Japan she had grown up with was overwhelmed by tragedy.

“Anyone connected to Japan was shocked by the tsunami — but I was also shocked that this place that I loved since I was a child was so transformed,” she says.

“A friend kept insisting I should write something so that Westerners could feel a personal connection to where this disaster had happened. I wrote an article for The New York Times, but mostly because my friend would not stop calling me,” Mockett admits.

That acclaimed piece led to other non-fiction work on the disaster, but more importantly to Mockett, she heard “from people all over the world, expressing their thanks. Gradually, I started to think, maybe there is a way to write a book that can more deeply address the things that I think are special about Japan.”

With a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in conjunction with the Japan-United States Friendship Commission, Mockett plunged herself into more grief. She traveled to the Tohoku region and various important Buddhist sites throughout Japan over four consecutive months with her 3-year-old son.

The decision to bring her son speaks to Mockett’s deep sense of family — her mother also came along to help care for him — and her hope to personalize something deeply universal.

“One of the things the Buddha says is that ‘humans suffer’ — I used to hear this and get annoyed, but, of course, people do suffer. And once you realize that your suffering is just one drop in a huge sea of experience, it actually makes your suffering feel smaller,” she says.

The resulting book, written as a series of connecting essays, neither leads with a scheduled agenda nor lapses into a rehearsed guide for dealing with grief. It is instead a wonderfully authentic journey into people and places, with a mother and her child who find and forge lasting connections. Mockett lingers in the worlds of strangers, taking the reader to Cafe de Monk and sharing the inspirational story of the Zen priest Kaneta Taiou who runs it; then a heartbreaking story in Tohoku of a slowly healing grandmother; Mount Koya, where Mockett exchanges whispers in the bath with a lively woman and her daughter; and, finally, to Osorezan, where Mockett waits in line for hours to speak with one of the last remaining itako (Japanese female shaman), making a lasting friend in the process.

Mockett says she sees the book, “as a journey following where a spirit goes when it dies and then culminating where it pauses before it disappears — and these are rich, wonderful beliefs in Japanese culture.”

She continues: “When I was in the worst of my grieving, I kept trying to find something that captured what I was feeling and I could never find anything — so I hope this book plants the seeds of something helpful. There is a simple, fundamental reason behind Buddhist traditions; the reason why you meditate or finish eating at the same time, or laying out the lantern (Todanagashi) in Matsushima Bay for o-Bon. It’s because if you can feel how connected you are to other people, you can also feel your grief against that canvas of all humanity.”

Mockett pauses. “Modern life can be so isolating.”