Ashes will rise to heaven as Buddhists go high-tech

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

February 02, 1993|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- Leave the car with an attendant at the 40-vehicle parking elevator.

Walk into the chrome-and-marble entrance next door, take the elevator upstairs -- and pay respects to your forebears at the family grave on the eighth or ninth floor.

The towering sepulcher is not some futuristic idea for a movie script.

It's a 3,500-grave construction project in Asakusa, one of Tokyo's most tradition-bound and devoutly Buddhist neighborhoods. The upstairs plot you buy for $20,800 today is promised to be ready to receive ashes in just over a year.

With it will come the right to pay additional fees to use a tea room and meeting quarters and to worship at a first-floor great Buddha hall, where high-tech lighting and sound equipment will be designed to evoke timeless Japanese tradition.

"I thought a lot about how people would care for their ancestors in the future, and it became clear that a tall building was the right answer," said Sengaku Sano, the Buddhist priest whose project it is.

And so for the fourth time since the Tokugawa shoguns gave the land to its founder 416 years ago, Shohoji Temple was torn down to be rebuilt. This time, instead of the usual tile-roofed buildings and courtyard with an austere garden, it will look like many another mid-rise Tokyo building: a stone exterior for the first two stories, then chrome and tile for the upper seven.

"The people who are most active in caring for their ancestors often are elderly themselves, but on a temple grounds the stairs and hills make it difficult," Mr. Sano said. "Here, they can go upstairs by elevator. And indoors, the visit won't be made miserable by bad weather."

More than 300 graves are already spoken for. They will be for people whose ashes and stone markers were already on the grounds when the temple was demolished last year.

Another site, bigger than the rest, will be a memorial to one of the temple's most celebrated patrons, Juzaburo Tsutaya. A great publisher of 18th-century Japan, he nurtured the careers of two famous wood-block printers: Utamaro Kitagawa, the legendary chronicler of women in the Yoshiwara fleshpot district, and Sharaku Toshusai, recorder of the period's Kabuki actors.

Tsutaya's remains will not be part of the memorial. They were lost in the great earthquake of Sept. 1, 1923, along with those of millions of others buried when ancient Tokyo was ruled by military warlords.

Since that earthquake, cremation of the dead has been mandatory in overcrowded Tokyo.

But at the same time, this city has become the political, financial and industrial capital of the world's No. 2 economy. It is the most densely populated conurbation on Earth -- resulting in ingenious adaptations such as the parking elevator, a vertical conveyor belt that dangles cars one above the other.

And the crowds are getting older: The average age of Tokyo's population is rising faster than any other city's.

In these circumstances, Tokyo residents find the cost of dying rising even faster than the cost of living, especially the cost of a burial plot, which today is typically about $30,400 for about 4 square feet of land.

Prices like that make Mr. Sano's $20,800 for a basic plot look like a bargain. They also have made a hit of a quarterly magazine called Reien Joho -- "Cemetery Information."

Its contents, a bit broader than its title, include articles on how to be a chief mourner and how to find a gravesite even if you don't have an heir to satisfy the cemetery owner that you can keep up the "perpetual care" payments.

Mr. Sano is not alone in thinking up futuristic ways to beat the scarcity of burial plots.

Sunray Co. Ltd., an undertaking firm in southwestern Japan that handles 7,000 bodies a year, announced last month that it was looking for a U.S. rocket company to become a partner in a solution it was developing.

Its plan is to build a 10,000-grave, egg-shaped burial tower on the moon by the end of this century. That's right, on the moon, and not just because there's so much open space up there.

"Many Japanese live far from their family graves these days," the company's announcement said. "A grave on the moon will be better than a distant grave on earth, because we can see the moon almost every night from almost any place in Japan."

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