A wedding and a funeral in Japan


Rites and rituals are fascinating parts of a culture, and I got to experience an abundance of them in Tokyo all in one day. The overcast Sunday began with my grandmother’s funeral. There are numerous ceremonies for the deceased in Buddhism, starting with a wake and cremation ceremony, followed by multiple memorial ceremonies, but this was one of the most significant ceremonies which takes place 49 days after the death (in Buddhism, 49 days is the estimated time it takes a spirit to be reborn). During the ceremony, a Buddhist priest chants from a sutra, then members of the family stand one at a time at the altar to offer incense to the deceased.

Following the ceremony, our grandmother’s urn was placed in the family grave located on the temple grounds. After a catered lunch of traditional Japanese food at the dining area of the temple, guests were given a parting gift (in the photo above, you can see us carrying gifts into the temple that will be given to guests) as a thank you for condolence money given to the family. Indeed it is a gift-giving culture, and gifts are as much a part of daily life as part of major rituals.


Later that day, I got to witness the wedding of my sister’s friend in the famous Meiji Jingu shrine in the heart of Harajuku, Tokyo. The bride wore a traditional white wedding kimono called a “shiromuku” and I think she looked so beautiful!


Traditional wedding ceremonies take place inside the shrine and are only for close family members, but friends and the general public can observe the procession from different parts of the shrine, complete with the ubiquitous red paper umbrella. If you visit Meiji Jingu during the weekend, you will likely see several wedding processions.


Many couples these days opt for a Western style wedding in a church or wedding hall, rather than the traditional ceremony, because the Western ceremony is more romantic and informal, and leaves room for personalization. No matter what style of wedding, guests are expected to give cash in a special decorative envelope (usually around $300 or more), and as a thank you for the gift money, the marrying couple gives guests a catalog that they can choose their gift from – things like ceramics, travel accessories, and food items. How smart to allow the guests to select their own gift! I may have to adopt this idea in some way.


Whether you are able to witness a traditional wedding at Meiji Jingu or not, the shrine and the long tree-lined walkway to the shrine are impressive, not to mention a welcome diversion from the bustle and sensory overload of Harajuku just outside the shrine grounds.


Insider tip:

Keep an eye on the guards in the shrine as they begin to direct foot traffic away from aisles just before a wedding procession comes through, and be one of the first to pick a vantage point right along the path before the crowds form to get the best view!


Have you experienced a wedding or funeral in another culture that was very different from your own?




4 Replies to “A wedding and a funeral in Japan”

  1. I agree—you really can tell a lot about a culture from its formal ceremonies. When I was in Hong Kong for my grandmother’s funeral, I distinctly remember thinking that the first day of the ritual was like an espresso shot of the Chinese culture: bright colors, lots of noise (singing, instruments, talking), the smell of smoky incense, and lots of people in a tight space. My grandmother’s funeral was Taoist and very interesting. It lasted from 4 PM to midnight on the first day and then from early morning through lunch on the second day. Much like your grandmother’s ceremony, the family offered incense to my grandmother. People were also burning fake money plus paper miniature houses, cars and jewelry to take with her to her next life. The family draped either burlap or black (a lot of Christians/non-Taoists feel more comfortable wearing black) over their clothes. I’m glad I got to experience it.

    Awesome post. And thanks for making it about Japan. 😀

    1. How fascinating! That sounds a lot more boisterous and celebratory than the Japanese Buddhist ceremony that was so formal, subdued and whisper quiet, aside from the priest chanting and gong sounds. It sounds like your grandmother is set to be well accessorized in her next life!

      I do love that smoky incense smell. It must be embedded in my memories of childhood because I’m very drawn to perfumes with a hint of incense. If you ever get a chance, smell Incense: Kyoto by Comme des Garcons.

      1. That’s so funny—I actually don’t like that scent and I think it’s also because of memories. But in my case, it reminds me of being in an environment that I knew was supposed to be part of me, but didn’t really resonate with me. I think I still struggle with that. I know I did when I was in HK a few years ago.

        1. Ah, makes sense. I associate the smell with being a child and playing all summer, every summer in Japan, and there is nothing like summer vacation when you are a kid!

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