A little over a month ago (end of May 2015) I visited Japan. This was an adventure I imagined and thought about for close to ten years. A few jobs, language classes, and many blessings later, I finally made it to the land of the rising sun. Overall it was a wonderful experience that I look forward to again sometime later in life.
The flight was long from Detroit to Narita airport, but it was a different sort of “long”. Since we were chasing the sun, it felt like a time warp; constant daytime with little regard for clocks and such. Upon arrival at Narita Airport, I attempted to track down my pocket wi-fi (very important) reservation, but failed. Thankfully there was another kiosk open where I could get what I was looking for. From there I found a bank to exchange some money. My unheeded travel fatigue was made apparent at this point; I’d left my phone at the bank kiosk and didn’t even realize until someone brought it to the front desk. This seemingly pedestrian act was very powerful to me, setting a nice tone for the country and my expectations to the coming week.
Thanks to a few classes and my friend/language partner (どうもありがとう 瑞穂 ^_^), I was able to communicate in a very basic yet functional way. Reading was by far the most difficult, but talking was fine. Basic things like “what”, “where”, “please”, “thank you”, etc. gets you many many things; the rest can be understood via body language.
After taking the bullet train (新幹線)from Narita to Iidabashi station, I’d lost my way in the terminal for the first of many times. Thankfully, a good-Samaritan by the name of Kisuke helped me find my way to the hostel I was staying, once again setting the tone for a foreign yet apparently very hospitable place.
At this point (it took me 4-6 hours to find the hostel) I’m sure I’ve missed a meal. Fortunately, my hostel shared a building with many other businesses including a sweet shop called Cozy corner. As such, I settled on Japanese cheesecake for dinner that night.
The next day, after settling in, I decided to simply pick a direction, walk, and see what happens. This way I would possibly be able to see what life was like on the ground, rather than what a typical tourist may or may not see. After a short while I eventually stumbled-into / found a beautiful park (公園); the Shin-Edogawa Garden (新江戸川区公園). Hopefully the pictures speak for themselves, but as you could probably imagine, the view was very peaceful, clean, unique, etc. Nice place to sit, breathe, take pictures, see the Koi fish…and feed the mosquitoes ^_^.
Later, I attempted to wander back to my hostel in an effort to get a feeling for the distance, direction, etc. While “backtracking” I eventually stumbled into what I could only call “Jizo Alley”; a small shopping district on a side street where you can find all sorts of food, sweets, and little 100 yen ($1) stores. The way you can simply wander into a small side-street and find cool stuff is one of the greatest things about Tokyo. No space is wasted here. Also, if you are ever in a pinch and need a handful of souvenir/gifts, the 100 shops are a great option.
After returning to my hostel, I determined it was time to try and seek out Mikao Usui’s memorial erected by the Gakkai. According to many sources, the temple is in “Saihoji Temple in Tokyo”. Those directions couldn’t be vaguer. First off, Tokyo is huge. Secondly, there are all sort of temples in Tokyo, let alone temples called Saiho-ji in Japan. Couple that with the fact that I really don’t know the Kanji for the specific temple I’m looking to enter into Google maps and…you get the point.
Thankfully, there were a few websites that had more details for me to sift through:
The directions in the first item were the most comprehensive, but still felt a bit dated given my time and observations in Tokyo. For example, the closest JR line station I could find was the major Koenji terminal, which is easily confused with the minor Shin-Koenji terminal; a difference of 20 minutes walking.
Initially, I didn’t observe this difference. After exiting the Koenji terminal for the first time, I had to pick a direction and hope for the best. No worries right? I have just under a week to find this place and I got started early on day 2. What’s the worst that can happen?
After asking a local policeman for directions toward Saihoji (and summarily confusing him with my 1st grade communication), I stood around attempting to get in touch with my magical intuition, struggling to pick a direction. Suddenly, I realized I was being watched by two young Japanese women. I mean being watched more than usual for an American black man in the middle of Tokyo. I stood there and waited, curious about how this impending communication may happen. Do I know enough words beyond yes, no, and goodbye to make sense? Do they know English at all?
Eventually, they stop and ask the “basic gaijin questions”; where are you from? (USA), why are you here? (Reiho), what is that? (…ummm). Their next question was especially interesting – Do you know Buddha?
I was both surprised and a bit excited at that question. Maybe we could talk about something we both know? Maybe I could see how things were done here.
“Yes”, I replied. Little did I know that answer was going to change many things that day.
In their excitement, they moved to share/read document claiming many things, including their understanding of Buddhism. They even invited me to join them for a chanting practice / ceremony later that evening. I was simultaneously curious and resistant to the offer.
While I’m sure they were sharing out of compassion, their vigorous Nichiren evangelizing and censuring of other forms of practice (Buddhist and otherwise) made me a bit hesitant. Add to that, the fact that I’m literally within walking distance (I hoped) of my goal and I wasn’t too excited to change course. That said, after lots of beseeching and in the spirit of good manners (and adventure), I decided to join them.
On the way over, we learned a bit more about one another; ages, occupation, etc. In the midst of these pleasantries they made sure to ask if I was carrying any Omamori (御守) and to ask me to remove my wrist Juzu (prayer beads) as so I don’t offend their space or “Living Buddha” (the Nichiren gohonzon).
Their profound partisanship was surprising, given the eclectic nature of Japanese spirituality. In a realm where shrines, temples, gambling, and commerce can all live peacefully together on one block, the idea of “the correct Buddhism” was especially unexpected. On the other hand, I was suddenly comfortable and a bit nostalgic having remembered our own cultural custom of evangelism; Same notion, not-so-different world.
I was also moved by their intense devotion and kind intentions. This obviously means a lot to them and changed their lives. I imagine offering respect to their practice was the least courteous thing to do.
Upon arrival in a random and very suburban neighborhood, I was led into their practice building area. At this point, the majority of the conventions, routines and rituals were quite familiar. For example, there’s the removal of one’s shoes, the customary bowing at the door and shrine, group chanting, etc. Once again, same notion, not-so-different world.
After the “service” I was offered a juzu and a chanting book written in kana, as well as some additional hand written directions on how and when to practice. Talk about hospitable! Part of me was in awe, grateful for their time and gifts. Another part of me realized it was getting a bit late and I wanted to get back to my adventure in Koenji.
Thankfully, I was helped back to a central location between Koenji and my home base at Iidabashi station. A short time later I ended up back in Koenji and I somehow tapped into this mystical intuition stuff (I got really lucky). I picked a direction and ended up finding the Sun Market store on the corner, the Shin-Koenji station and the long path to the local Saihoji Temple. Upon nearing the temple, I was unnerved (in a pleasant way) by the resonant Ki in the air; very quiet and peaceful. I later realized I shouldn’t be so surprised as it was a cemetery after all.
That feeling quickly dissolved upon seeing the Temple gate shut. I was both disappointed and elated. I’d found the place but it was too late.
Oh well, on to the next day…