We’d been waiting for April 1st. Not for the blossom but to be able to buy our Grutto pass – a discount coupon booklet which would unlock the world of Tokyo’s museums and art galleries.
Our first venture was to the small Amuse museum – a museum/shop complex – the whole of Tokyo is like a Russian doll – in a small building near Senso-Ji. We’d walked the area many times but it had always remained hidden to us – high up, out of sight, although the name is clearly marked – but we are always distracted by the temple.
They had an exhibition about Bodo or Bodoko. Patches upon patches. Bits of cloth tacked one over another. Hemp onto cotton. Thick stripes and thin stripes. Plain cloth. Stitches visible. A jumble. Clothes and cloths used by generations of a family. What stories they could tell! Such cloths, poor, tattered and ragged as they are, carry a big weight – the energy, knowledge, love and support of family – a whole family – those still living and those long gone. All of these scraps, touched by countless hands, valued beyond measure, – not because they were beautiful, but because they were practical. They were beautiful nonetheless.
I’d always been interested in my own family history. My dad’s family was large, but almost lost to me. There were occasional Christmas visits and presents, but no comfort or love. My mum was a single child. Granny and grandad on that side were constants, but our family was small and somehow broken. Not in a bad way, just in a lonely way. I always wanted a big brother who I felt would be duty bound to look out for me and protect me in thousands of small ways every day. Thats why the Bodo moved me. Often used as birthing cloths: babies were literally welcomed into the arms of family, ancestors, tradition and togetherness. These cloths told them: ‘you will never be alone’.
In my own family I wondered where I fitted in. Who was like me. What made me the way I am. But it was only after we started to travel, that I started researching my family tree.
I found a whole cast of characters. Mostly ordinary people. An army of agricultural labourers. A host of strong women struggling to bring up kids with men who liked to drink and fight. Men who fought in the war. Men who drove steam trains. Women who worked as domestic servants. And my great great grandad who influenced my life immeasurably by running away from Barbados and slavery at the age of sixteen. Every ordinary life is extraordinary but it was the mass of all these people together that made me feel connected – to them, to history, to it all. They anchored me, stopped me drifting. I was one of many, not one alone.
The Japanese honour their ancestors. At the gravesides of one Buddhist sect, we’ve found large wooden sticks. They look for all the world like lolly sticks, but they mark important stages of development in the afterlife – just as we have the milestones of birth, marriage, death in this life – the dead continue to grow and change.
I don’t have a permanent place to honour my family, so here are a handful of photos that I love of some of the people that I love. So, that they know I’m grateful and they are not forgotton. And they go on.