Take a funeral portrait, scatter fake ashes: death tourism rising draw for Japan's elderly

A woman lies in a coffin at the annual "Shukatsu Festa 2014" funeral business fair in Tokyo on August 24, 2014.
A woman lies in a coffin at the annual "Shukatsu Festa 2014" funeral business fair in Tokyo on August 24, 2014.
A woman on a kimono dress designed for 'the last journey after death' at the annual "Shukatsu Festa 2014" funeral business fair in Tokyo on August 24, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
A woman on a kimono dress designed for 'the last journey after death' at the annual "Shukatsu Festa 2014" funeral business fair in Tokyo on August 24, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
A man lies in a coffin, while a coffin maker employee closes the cover at the annual "Shukatsu Festa 2014" funeral business fair in Tokyo on Aug 24, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
A man lies in a coffin, while a coffin maker employee closes the cover at the annual "Shukatsu Festa 2014" funeral business fair in Tokyo on Aug 24, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
A woman (centre) has her hair styled before sitting for a photograph that will be used for her deceased portrait, at the annual "Shukatsu Festa 2014" funeral business fair in Tokyo on Aug 24, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
A woman (centre) has her hair styled before sitting for a photograph that will be used for her deceased portrait, at the annual "Shukatsu Festa 2014" funeral business fair in Tokyo on Aug 24, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (YOMIURI SHIMBUN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Housewife Reiko Wachi, 65, who lives in Kawasaki, poses for pictures as a photographer encourages her, saying, "Good smile. Very nice."

The photo session last month was planned by a Tokyo-based travel company, Club Tourism International Inc., with the goal of having participants prepare portraits for their funerals while they are still full of energy. That day, nine people joined the event.

"The portrait will be my last picture, so I want a photo that really captures who I am," Wachi said.

So-called shukatsu tours - in which participants can have portraits taken for their own funerals and experience a simulation of scattering their ashes - are rising in popularity mainly among elderly people.

Shukatsu means activities to prepare for the end of your life. Participants take part in these tours for various reasons, for example, thinking, "I want to think about my own death while I'm still in good health," and "I don't want to cause problems for my children."

The company also provides a cruise on which participants can experience scattering "ashes" into Tokyo Bay. They throw bags filled with salt, used to resemble remains, into the sea from the ship.

"I was very impressed," said Hatsue Toyo-izumi, 71, from Tachikawa, Tokyo. "Though my oldest daughter lives in the United States, the ocean is connected around the world, so I can stay with her all the time."

Another tour offers an opportunity to visit buildings where ashes are deposited, and to visit graveyards. The day trip is priced at about 8,000 yen (S$90) to 10,000 yen. About 450 people have taken part in such tours so far with people on the waiting list.

"Demand will probably further increase due to the trend toward having a close-knit family and due to the fallen birth rate," said Mitsuharu Nojima, director of the management planning division of the travel company.

Gotemba Total Service Co., which operates public facilities in Gotemba, Shizuoka Prefecture, also offers shukatsu tours. In the tour, people visit local cemeteries in addition to residences for elderly people and tourist attractions. People from neighbouring regions, including Kanagawa Prefecture, participate in the tour.

"We hope the tour will encourage participants to spend their last days in Gotemba," a company employee said.

Professor Haruyo Inoue of Toyo University's Faculty of Human Life Design, who is an expert on sociology and familiar with funeral services, said: "Although people have let their family members take care of their funeral arrangements in the past, now they have to think about it on their own, due to the trend of closer-knit families and such. These tours are gaining popularity because people can go to funeral companies and other places, which are difficult for them to visit by themselves."