Living in Japan can be stressful at times, especially when one is not a native speaker and is, generally speaking, culturally inept. Many overseas residents and Japanese nationals alike use the bottle as a cure-all. Others simply grow more and more pessimistic and non-emotive until one day, they just snap. Desiring neither of these alternatives, we decided to head to Kyoto for a meditation experience with two friends.
Three of us travelled from Yokkaichi in the wee hours of the morning (wee being approximately 10am on the Obon weekend) to meet up with the fourth in Kyoto. Genkiduck and I were still shell-shocked from two weeks of intensive Japanese studying, while our fellow Yokkaichi-ite was exhausted by a commute between his hometown of Iga, and Yokkaichi. His Obon vacation had already begun.
Kyoto was crowded, as we expected. However, our goal was to relax and detox. We spent the afternoon meandering around Kyoto, slowly making our way towards Kennin-ji temple. The temple grounds were also bustling, but the moment we stepped foot into the Ryosokuin, the temple room reserved for our meditation experience, the hectic pace of Kyoto dissipated like a heavy fog melting under a steady sun.
As we waited for our session to begin, we were left to our own devices in a serene, contemplative setting. A central garden anchored the Ryosokuin. The only audible sounds were the shuffling of bare feet over tatami and a shishi odoshi (bamboo water hammer) counting off time with its rhythmic clacking. Muffled voices and giddy laughter broke the serenity as a few more eager souls joined us in the outer chambers. Eventually, a priest came and ushered us into the meditation room. By now, there were about twenty curious guests.
The meditation room was an open-air structure, flanked by a garden on three sides. The fourth side was sealed off by a small, dimly lit shrine to a Buddha. Although we shouldn’t have been surprised by this, our friends had assured us that there was nothing religious about the mediation experience that we were attending. It was a vexing predicament to be in as one could neither flee nor fully adapt. Each person was required to go, in turn, before the Buddha and drizzle incense over a candle in traditional fashion. We managed to flounder our way through the process without raising the ire of the priest or compromising our beliefs.*
Prior to beginning meditation, we were walked through the process…in Japanese. The two of us were the only non-native Japanese speakers present, but we got the gist of it. My aikido training helped me understand body posturing and breathing. By show of hands, all but two people were new to meditation, which was comforting, to say the least. We were told that if we found it too difficult to break ourselves from reality, we could cross our arms and lean forwards. This act would invite the priest to hit us with a large wooden stick four times, twice on the meat of each shoulder, to set us free of our distractions. Initially, I intended to volunteer, but the pain of sitting cross-legged for so long, perfectly motionless in the sweltering heat was more than enough to keep me from becoming too distracted.
The session was split into two 15 minute sections. For three of us, time was evanescent. For Genkiduck, our session lasted an eternity due to heat exhaustion. I was convinced the first section lasted only 3 minutes. I felt cheated. The second section seemed to drag on a little longer. After a while, my legs began to cramp, my back seized, and my skin was puckered by beads of sweat. Still, I swear it lasted no longer than 5 minutes. For those of you who have read “The Absent Body” by Drew Leder, you may be able to relate to the following. I have never been more aware of my visceral organs. Every part of my body was present and controllable. I was actively inside my own skin rather than only acting outwardly, as we so often do. It was an eerie yet exhilarating experience.
Back in the real world, we cooled down with some Starbucks Frappuccinos while fording a path to a Russian café, called Café Barbatica, on the far side of Kyoto. Bigger cities always have hidden gems such as this. There, we were treated to a fabulous, albeit small bowl of authentic borscht and pirozhki. The borscht tasted as good as my grandmother’s, and it even came with a dollop of real sour cream. The meal was so good that it inspired one of our friends to begin studying Russian the very next day. This day of relaxation, even though it was cramped by time constraints and travel fatigue, was just what we needed. A little bit of nourishment for our body and soul in good company.
*This is a fairly consistent tension that we feel each time we visit either a shrine or temple in Japan. Japanese people are typically very non-theistic. Shinto and Buddhist practices are simply a part of the culture and are rarely imbued with any religious meaning. Prayers are more akin to wishes, such as a wish made to do well on a test or to find a lover as soon as possible.