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 on taking full advantage of it this time round; volunteering.
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Last time I volunteered was almost 3 years ago on the Indonesian island of Java where I worked at two English schools. It really is the perfect answer to a long-term traveller. The enormous advantage is having a free place to stay and often being fed, saving yourself a hell of a lot of money. However just as important is the experience you gain, something completely unique. Something you couldn’t get from just staying in a hostel. So months in advance, I began streaming my way through the spectacular website Workaway to try to find the perfect places to volunteer my time. I found one. The one place that stood out above all else, a truly an incomparable experience. I would be working and living everyday life in a Buddhist temple.
A Few Detours
We pick up the story from Nagano where I spent some time observing snow monkeys in the nearby mountain town of Yudanaka. I needed to head south towards the city of Nagoya, even though I still had 4 days before the arranged date of my arrival, so I had some time to kill. I decided to cut-down the journey with a stop at Matsumoto for a day. The decision more or less came from wanting to see the only real highlight the city had to offer, but a spectacular one at that. The image of Matsumoto Castle is known throughout Japan, and in a nation of many fascinating castles, this is the oldest surviving one of the lot.
Next I had to head for my guesthouse in Nagoya…or what I thought was Nagoya. When planning way in advance its easy to miscalculate distances on a map. What might look like a couple of miles away turns out to be a 40 minute train journey outside of the city. The guesthouse was in the quiet coastal town of Gamagori, miles away from any real tourist action. The only little treat was a shrine located in the middle of a tiny island just off the coast. I took the opportunity to do some late night exploration as the shrine sang to the chorus of rhythmic waves against its coasts. Other than that, I spent what time I had to relax before entering the unknown.
On the road, you truly have no idea what to expect when arriving somewhere new. Be it a new city or a hotel/guesthouse you’ve booked, least of all a temple. I had no idea what it would be like, how I should I conduct myself? How strict are the inhabitants of the temple? How would they react to my tattoos and piercings? I hadn’t the slightest clue.
From my Gamagori guesthouse I headed back towards Nagoya before grabbing another train heading south to an even smaller town; Agui. I sat anxiously in the train station waiting for someone to pick me up. “Hello” someone shouted out their car window. That must have been for me. It was the son (Shinku) of the Buddhist monk that owned the temple. He had little enthusiasm in his voice as he asked some introductory questions whilst he drove to my new home for the week. “How long have you been in Japan? Why are you here? Why did you want to volunteer in my temple?”. thankfuly the short distance across town made the awkward small-talk brief. Shinku drove briskly up the hills through the tightly stacked neighbourhood to his family’s temple placed on top.
We pulled into a respectable understated little temple, surrounded by neighbouring homes. It lacked the grandeur and elaborate designs of the most visited temples whilst still possessing the unmistakable hallmarks. Statues of gods and significant figures in Buddhism as well as a miniature bell tower and an elaborately adorned shrine within the main hall.
It was as a traditional Japanese home as you could imagine. Long interconnected wooden corridors separated by traditional paper sliding doors. We passed the Buddhist monk being interviewed by the previous volunteer until we reached an open area. With a few slides of the doors he had sealed off a neat little square which would be my room for the duration of my stay. I had no idea what to do next as I was left in my sealed off little room with . Luckily the previous volunteer happily approached me and began explaining everything I needed to know.
She explained how this indeed was a temple, just attached to your more regularly functioning family home. The Buddhist monk himself didn’t actually live here, rather in another temple he owned 40 minutes away. However his wife (Renjun) did reside in the home, and thus responsible for taking care of the family’s temple. She also eased my anxieties of being in a super strict religious environment by revealing a bit more about the family. She explained that Shinku happened not only to be a DJ but also a breakdancer, along with Renjun fostering two teenagers who were avid video game connoisseurs as well as regularly drinkers and smokers. So not quite the abstinence back-whipping environment I had envisioned. The previous volunteer also explained what would be my duties during my stay. She pointed out early on that the work wouldn’t be easy, at times it would be tough and monotonous. This didn’t really phase me as I had expected as much. There would also be another volunteer there during my stay, which I couldn’t help to be a little disappointed to learn. There was an error, they hadn’t realised two people were arriving. It must have caused confusion having a volunteer named PJ and another French-Canadian called PA.
The day began at 6am as it did everyday for the family. The volunteers gathered in the main hall where Renjun was preparing for her early morning prayers. The incense sticks would be lit filling the hall with that unmistakable scent of spirituality. She would kneel beside the shrine as she chanted and rhythmically beat a drum as we knelt beside her in silent prayers. It was the best opportunity we had to experience true Buddhist rituals, to fully appreciate where we were in that moment. A moment which I had been anticipating for months. All to the hypnotic soundtrack of traditional Buddhist prayers.
I was told before-hand my job would likely be one of two things: sweeping or cutting down bamboo. I prayed for the latter but I wasn’t so lucky. The tools I was given for the job were questionable at best. In true Asian fashion I was provided a broom made of straw, hardly the most heavy duty equipment. The other volunteer had already began working an hour before I had, which started an unnecessary competitive drive in me which lasted for the duration of our stay.
I was shown to the family’s graveyard which overlooked the temple grounds and was told to sweep up the thick layer of crispy autumn leaves which had fallen from the surrounding forests. Shinku just left me to it, without giving much instruction on how pristine the graves should be. Despite that, I did my upmost to ensure that they were as spotless as I could possible make them with my limited gardening experience. Sweeping mountains of fallen leaves to the very last one, tearing up pesky weeds by their deep gripped roots, turning once dishevelled and forgotten graves into the harmonised spotlessness they should always have been. The only problem with my spectacular progress was a constant set-back which was the very nature of what I was fighting against: the leaves kept falling. As much progress as I had made, the few pesky leaves that remained on the swaying branches would ruin it as they fell. Could say that my work was pretty much a waste of time. Shinku came to the same conclusion half-way through the second day and took me away to my next task.
During my whole time there, there was actually very little interaction with the family. Other than Shinku occasionally turning up to give some more instructions, I would hardly see them. The only real interaction I had was when it came time to eat. Each day at 12pm and 6pm we volunteers ate in Renjun’s room where she kindly provided meals, each one more delicious than the last. Such hard work can give a man an appetite, and the both of us could certainly eat our fair share. Almost as if the competitive nature in me extended to the food I ate. With each meal we had some etiquette to follow and my first opportunity to learn some Japanese. Before we ate we’d have to put our hands together and pray 10 times before we ate. Showing respect to not only the religion and the family, but for the food we were about to receive. Stay tuned for part two!