Months before I had arrived in Japan, I began the process of planning where I wanted to go and what exactly I wanted to do. The destinations practically chose themselves. However, there was one aspect of travelling that I was very keen on undertaking. It was something I had already tried years prior, and anticipated…
We pick up the story a few days into my new temple temple life.
Table of Contents
The Vital Task
We volunteers only had one task relating to the temple itself, and a vital one it was. Without exception, it had to be done daily. One of us would have to ring the bell outside each day at precisely 6pm. In the past this was done for practical purposes for those in the village, much like the rings of a town clock. However in recent times it has become more symbolic and a spiritual routine. I was surprised us volunteers had such an important responsibility.
The bell had to be struck at 6pm, a total of 6 times at 20 second intervals. What’s more you couldn’t use a timer (naturally your first thought) but had to count within without any aids. Its surprisingly difficult to count whilst keeping track of the number of strikes. Particularly when the bell would create some sort of the warpped waves after it had been struck bell.
Cutting Down the Forest
Half way through the second day Shinku mercifully took me off sweeping duty. He took me to the bamboo forest that stretched across the back of the family’s temple. It was a vast stretch of forest that grew along a sloped hillside that reached down to the road beneath. It surrounded the temple’s grounds on almost all sides in a thick tangled jungle which swayed and creaked with any gust of wind.
My job was simple; cut the bamboo down, pile them up and we’d burn them at the end of the week. Yet again, the tools weren’t what you’d typically expect for the job. No chainsaws, axes or even a classic machete. Instead I had a small hand saw about the length of your forearm. He showed me the technique for cutting them down. A small incision above, then cut up to it on the opposite side before you hear a satisfying crack as the tree begins to fall down.
This job was most definitely the harder job physically. Forearms burning more than a teenage boy fresh into puberty as I sawed ferociously through the outer rim of the hollow bamboo. That was only the start. I was assigned a section of the forest that grew along a sloped hill, which made it almost impossible to drag up the big, heavy trunks. In true Schwazaneger style, they had to be carried while placed along your shoulder as you scaled the loose dirt slopes with newly cut trunks setting fears of impalement in your mind.
Tough is was but just as the other job, strangely purifying. An unusual form of meditation. There’s something in having a monolithic task, something that needs to be cleared. As arduous and as slow a process it was, its oddly gratifying to watch the progression you have achieved and the gradual purification of the disorganisation that was once there before you. You keep progressing without distraction, nothing but the task solely in mind, until there’s nothing left to clear, achieving total clarity. A bit like your mind really…ohhhh.
Help But Not Helpful
I forever have and always will prefer to work alone. Group work throughout secondary school and beyond drove me up the fucking wall. I don’t want some lazy couch-potato fuck dragging me down nor do I want to work alongside self-centred arrogant pricks. If there’s a job to be done, just let me do it.
Sadly however, I wasn’t the only volunteer there. Nothing against the guy really, he was friendly and completely harmless. Just one of those people whom caused more work to be done than less. Instead of showing the slightest bit of effort in trying to pull up a bigger piece of bamboo, he’d insist on cutting it into 3 or 4 pieces and throwing them up. One of those acts which looks like you’re doing a lot whilst in reality you’re achieving nothing at all. My point would be proven more than ever on the last day.
Burn It Down
Excitement filled the final day. Not as it was the last day of work, rather it was the work itself. Today I’d be burning every last piece of the mountainous pile of bamboo I had gathered in an enormous bonfire. I couldn’t have been happier. As a kid, I wasn’t necessarily a pyromaniac, but I was as close as you could get to one. Just a healthy curious fascination with burning the odd object or throwing random things into a fire, that’s all. Who doesn’t like to playing with a little fire right?….right?
So you can understand my joy when Shinku set a small pile of bamboo alight and left me to it with the simplest of instructions: “Burn it all”. What started as nothing more than a miniature campfire quickly turned into a witch-burning fire straight from the depths of hell reaching above the temple as I danced around the flames chanting and grunting like during the caveman’s first discovery.
This had an added treat, or concern, depending how you looked at it. Those were ear-shattering explosions. As bamboo is nothing more than a series of hollow tubes, the expanding air builds to extraordinarily high pressures within which leads to an Earth shattering explosion. It quite literally causes a miniature sonic boom, much like that of a gunshot. As the flames intensified the burning mass would release deafening cracks one after the other, easily mistaken with the sounds of an active war-zone.
I got so carried away with the thrill of the flames that I forgot that occasionally these powerful blasts sent hot embers flying outwards, sometimes with incredible velocity. Mostly they weren’t a problem, apart from the one I missed landing perfectly on my possessions. SHIT SHIT SHIT, I hadn’t noticed until it was too late, spotting smoke rising from my jackets. The damage had already been done. Both (and only ones I had) were completely singed and destroyed. They were given a Vikings burial back onto the flames.
It’s Not a Competition, But I’m Winning
The French-Canadian yet again achieved in annoying me. For the first part of the day I happily tended to the flames by myself with the upmost joy…until he turned up. Obviously he never played with fire as much as I had as a kid (shocking right?) as hadn’t a clue what he was doing. So much so, when I left him to go for lunch, I inhaled it as quickly as I could knowing he couldn’t maintain it. He seemed to be apprehensive to get close to the flames (it’s not like he’d get burned or anything, fosh!). He seemed happy enough to go back to his cut into little pieces routine. I preferred it that way, I was happy to have the flames to myself.
Coming to the end of my “shift” would annoy me even more. Each day we only had to work for 5 hours. His time was up and he walked away. About a quarter of the bamboo pile remained when my clocking-off time approached, there was . Partly not wanting to leave a job half-done, and the fact that the fire was already going, I might as well burn them all. He sat inside with the Buddhist monk who’d especially come down to show him how to play the Japanese flute, as I slaved away. That pissed me off. I waiting for the flames to die down after every last piece of bamboo had burned, 2 hours over my allotted time.
Shinku came to inspect the work that had been done. He was a quiet man, a man of very few words that rarely show any form of emotion, not even a smile. He never commended either of us for the work we did, nobody in the family would. Nobody’s going to kiss your ass, you had a job to do and were expected to do it. He inspected the empty expanse of grass where the bamboo once laid, and with genuine surprise in his voice said:
“Wow….I didn’t expect you to do all of it!”
“I wanted to finish them, I didn’t want to leave anything behind” it was the first time he showed any real reaction, the only time his face lost that near emotionless look he had. He walked up and down where the bamboo once laid in amazement that it all had been done. As he walked away he turned around and said “Thank you.” The one and only time he had said it to either of us. That moment was the most gratifying feeling I could have had, to have my efforts and hard work recognised and truly appreciated from someone near impossible to impress. I felt that I finally showed my gratitude for what he and his family had given me in my time in the temple, and the perfect way to end my time there.
A Welsh university drop-out on a mission to travel the world for as little money as possible. My adventures have taken me through over 30 countries across Europe, Asia and Oceania, and the list keeps on growing! From classic backpacking to working and volunteering, I have found all sorts of ways to maintain a life on the road.