TOKYO — Every August, Japan's cemeteries and graveyards come alive during the Festival of the Dead, a time when ancestors who have passed into the other world are believed to return for a brief visit.
But with the living crowded into just about every last nook and cranny in Tokyo, the ancient Buddhist festival is forcing many to face an uncomfortable fact of modern life — that for those in need of a final resting place, the situation is, well, quite grave.
Over the next week, tens of millions of Japanese will visit their family plots for the "Obon" festival, one of the most important celebrations on the Japanese calendar. The festival has become synonymous with summer vacation, and many of the country's businesses will close down until it is over.
Despite its name, Obon is generally a time to be enjoyed. Late night outdoor dances and fairs are held, and young men and women dress up in traditional Japanese-style kimono to partake in time-honored rituals: They catch goldfish and play a game in which blindfolded participants try to break a watermelon with a stick.
But there is no doubt that Obon's centerpiece — its graveyards — are in the throes of a serious crisis.
The main problem is space, particularly in the greater Tokyo area, where about one-fifth of Japanese live.
"Unless you plan on waiting or have a lot of money to spend, your only choice is to look for a cemetery outside Tokyo," said Masaru Fujikura, a 70-year-old retiree.
According to a recent book called "Graves: What Will You Do?," the cremated remains of as many as 1 million Tokyoites are being kept at home by families who are for various reasons unable to make suitable arrangements.
Many are simply waiting for a plot.
Tokyo has eight city-operated graveyards, but only four of them have any openings. This year, there were five applicants for each available plot, and the winners were chosen by lottery.
"It's really hard to see how we can build any more large-scale, centrally located cemeteries in the future," said Hideo Honma, head of the city's cemetery department.
Temples, which have traditionally handled most of the burden, are running out of room as well.
It's not that Japanese graves take up much space to begin with. Since most Japanese are cremated, the average grave occupies only about one square yard. But at Tokyo's publicly operated graveyards, even a memorial plot that size averages between $13,000 and $18,000, including materials and construction costs.