The timing on the class assignment on ancestor ritual was perfect because the otoosan was planning to visit his family's graves the week-end after I brought up the topic of ancestors. When I first asked about going to the graves I got different answers from otoosan and okaasan. When I asked okaasan what time we would be leaving the next morning she told me it would just be me and otoosan—she had to work, and she told me, "I won't be going this year." I thought it was a bit strange that she only went once a year, and also that she wouldn't take off from work for a special occasion.
So the otoosan and I went alone to the graves (ohaka). On the way there we went to a florist and picked out some really nice flowers. We didn't talk much through the whole ride and I wasn't sure if the ritual was supposed to be a somber one, comparable to a funeral in American society. When we got to the graveyard, and found the gravestone, of his father and mother, I helped the otoosan clean out all the leaves that had fallen, and old flowers he had brought on prior visits. We then washed down the stone with water, put the new flowers in, and lit the candles and incense. Otoosan got down before the gravestone with his beads and prayed for about fifteen seconds—I just watched. Then he gave me another set of beads and told/asked me to pray. I wasn't sure exactly who to pray to, so I just prayed. When I got back up, otoosan was kind of laughing and we went on to a temple where priests with shaved heads hummed, chanted, and beat drums. Then we set out on the ride home.
In the car I actually got some useful information from otoosan that I had been trying to get out of everyone else for the past two weeks. He said that ideally, he would go to the ohaka every month on the day that his mother and father had died. For example, if his okaasan died on the 26th of May, he would want to go every month on the 26th. However, he said he usually can't because he is often too busy, although he does try to go at least once a month to make sure that the site is always pretty. He doesn't really worry about praying to the other ancestors on a regular basis because there are too many of them, but he reserves their prayer for the "special events" like the ancestor festival in August.
Then I asked him about the Buddhist altar they have in the house, and how often he uses that. He said if he were really a good person he would do it every day, but again he is too busy. Instead, he usually does it every Saturday and Sunday, and whenever else he has free time. As for Masako, she said she might pray twice a year, although that's probably pushing it. In addition they usually pray to the ancestors on a regular basis at New Year's, and also if there is something specific that they need to pray for, like good health, luck, or money.
Otoosan and Masako (my host sister) explained to me that during the August holiday they pray and their ancestors come back and 'talk' to them. They said it with smirks on their faces and started to laugh (partially because all of otoosan's missing teeth were showing). I asked them if they really believed that, to which Masako replied, "Do you believe in Santa Claus?" Good point, I thought.