Sunday, 21 August 2011

Ko Kato

Ko san and digging akane (madder) in his mulberry field.

I wrote this blog just a few days before the tsunami and nuclear meltdown. There was enough bad news going around so it has sat in my blog edit pile for these past months.

I am very grateful to Minako and Ko Kato who live in a village on the other side of my town. 17 years ago I showed up at their front door and in poor Japanese I asked to see the silk kimono rolls she wove from the silk her family produces. Minako took me to their old clay storehouse and I watched as she opened some drawers and took out some hand woven rolls of naturally dyed hand spun and reeled silk. I took a good look at them and stood up straight and thanked her. In less than one minute the rest of my life had been decided. I was going to learn the processes and make my own silk and weave it. I needed to speak Japanese. I hit the textbooks and cassette tapes and in five months I was back on their doorstep asking them to teach me (in a more advanced state of broken Japanese) all about silk farming, thread making, old weaving looms and tools .

We became good friends over the years. I did need basic Japanese to communicate but our relationship built on years and years of non-verbal communication. Spending hundreds of hours threading and warping looms, digging dyestuffs and sharing time enjoying the lengthy processes brought us close together.

Sadly, Ko passed away last week at 93. The family called and I went over to their house and helped prepare for the funeral. In the country they still bring the body back to the house for a few days. He looked peaceful sleeping on his futon dressed in a white cotton kimono.

Yesterday the buddhist priest came and it was time to take him away to the crematorium. The family members and friends help dress him and prepare him for the seven day journey to the next world. He needs some cute white silk shoes. Some white silk leg protectors to keep the mud off his legs. A bag around is neck with six coins to pay for the ferryboat to the other side. A bag in case he receives any presents along the way. A walking stick because the path is hard. Some straw sandals to walk in. (The ties are cut though in case his ghost decides to come back thus making it impossible to really walk in them.) The coffin was filled with things he liked. Some sake. Some books.

Minako asked me to help her cover him with a beautiful indigo dyed kimono she had woven for him many years ago. She said to him, " Remember this one old guy? You raised the silk cocoons and I wove this for you. It is for you."

Then the coffin was filled with flowers and we drove to the crematorium. It takes about an hour to finish there. The temperature is kept quite low so that the ancient tradition of loved ones picking up the bones together with chopsticks can continue.

He taught me many things about mulberry cultivation and silk farming. I spent many afternoons listening to his stories of the war and the self sufficient ways of the old days. ( He would set a fish trap on the way to elementary school and bring the fish back home after school for the family to eat.) I suppose one bond between us was that the three of us knew very well that life in that simpler time was far more sophisticated and enjoyable. I miss him.


  1. a beautiful tribute. thanks for this post, it reminded me of the movie okuribito .

  2. a much more beautiful way to celebrate the passing of a life
    rather than simply shipping them off to a "funeral parlour"

    thank you

  3. Sad to read about Ko-san passing. Thanks god he passed all the knowledges to you to carry-on teaching. Your explanation about preparing him reminds me of a Japanese movie the Departure sad, but true...

  4. It is obvious from your post what an important man Ko-san was in your life (and continues to be through your work), I have been very interested to read about him and about the Japanese traditions associated with death.

  5. remembering a friend is a good thing, and you said good bye so appropriately. i love how being in the presence of this man changed your life.

  6. Dear Velma; Ko was hospitalized for a year before his death. He needed kidney dialysis several times a week. This is not so uncommon in the countryside here for old timers. The farmers take in a lot of salt when they eat when working under the hot sunshine in the fields. I would drive his wife to see him once a week. These visits used to kill me emotionally. They had been married 70 some years and grew up only two houses away from each other. I regret that I didn't spend more time with them in the few years before he passed away. I was busy. What a lame excuse.
    It is hard when visiting old folks I noticed. They tire easy and can't look after guests to the level they once did. They are happy to be remembered. I suppose it is best to put myself in their shoes forty years form now.

  7. Bryan, I am so sorry for the loss of your good friend, teacher, mentor. Thank you for sharing this story. I have always been more comfortable around the elderly. I love their stories and their ways. Wishing you warm memories and laughter as you remember your friend.

  8. how fortunate you were to find Ko-san for a teacher/mentor. the skills he taught you will continue on.

  9. Thank you for your comments. I could write a book about Ko and Minako and the years spent with them. Very precious. I should visit Minako more often. The Japanese written character for "busy' consists of two radicals that mean: Llost soul/heart. If you are busy you lose your soul.