Back to Basics in Japan.

Many a woman has had this fantasy—you come in after a long exhausting day and to your delight find that the man of the house has drawn you a hot bath and put on the kettle.  After a peaceful soak, red faced, wrapped in a bathrobe you come down the stairs to find that the man has not just made you a cup of tea but has also left you a generous slice of cake. Oh, this is a man who really knows you, right? Except he doesn’t, at least not in my case.  When my fantasy finally came true I was sitting in nothing more than loungewear in a stranger’s living room, shoveling his cake into my mouth, unable to ask him about so much as his day because of the aforementioned cake mouth situation but also because I do not speak a lick of Japanese.

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Such is my life as a henro, one of the pilgrims who walk the contours of Shikoku Island, visiting 88 Buddhist temples whose histories are linked, sometimes only in legend with Kōbō Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism in Japan. Thousands of henro undertake the 1200 km journey every year, often staying in family-run inns called minshiku along the trail, which is how I ended up soaking in a stranger’s bathtub.

Though this was already the third minshiku that I had stayed in, it was the first one where I had a wash. Before you gasp in horror, let me explain.  On my first day of walking I had to pass through six temples, performing a series of rituals that were completely unknown to me. More than that, I had to figure out which of these felt right to me, which left me baffled more than enlightened and so had to be abandoned and which ones I could afford. Purchasing incense and candles was out. The Heart Sutra was in, but seeing as to how the sound of my own voice pronouncing Japanese syllables traumatized me I switched to reciting it in English.  Ladling a cup of spring water into my hands was appealing, though by the sixth temple my freezing hands protested.  My favorite part became filling out a bookmark-sized piece of paper stamped with the image of Kōbō Daishi, writing my name, the date and where I come from on the front and a wish on the back. I believe the personal details are safety guard against wishes that you wouldn’t want traced back to you.

By the end of that first day, after saying the Heart Sutra thirteen times, once at each of the Main Halls, once at each of the smaller Daishi Halls, and once at an administrative building that I mistook for the Daishi Hall, I was templed out. Arriving at my first minshiku I wished for nothing more than to maintain the little body heat I was still producing and to take a nap.  The elderly woman who ran the inn had other ideas.


“Yes, sure“ I lied and nodded my head.  I had about as much desire to strip off my clothes as I did to listen to a recording of myself reciting the Heart Sutra in its original. As planned, I took a nap instead, waking up to a phone call from downstairs for dinner.

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For a newcomer to Japanese cuisine suppertime might be difficult, especially I imagine for the newbie who has never held a pair of chopsticks. Somewhere in hell there is a group of Western tyrants sitting around a lavish table, cursed with an eternal ravaging hunger and chopsticks taped to their hands. My New York upbringing has given me a lot to be thankful for (a high tolerance for smells after years spent waiting for trains on subway platforms, for one) and the ability to eat raw fish with a pair of wooden sticks, eyeballing just the right-sized smear of wasabi to swirl around in the soy sauce.  Equally handy at dinnertime is my Russian upbringing, which has trained my palate to enjoy all things fermented and pickled.  Whether it’s octopus and yellow fin tuna sashimi, sour cabbage, tart, salty fruits or fermented soybeans, I will happily partake in its consumption.

What I wasn’t so happy about was dinner being an intricate ploy to get me clean.

Bath?” The owner asked hopefully while I sucked down a pile of noodles.

“Too cold, “ I pleaded, wrapping my arms around my shoulders and shivering. Dramatically.

“Later?” she pleaded.

I smiled noncommittally, as though in addition to Japanese I no longer spoke English and went back to my soup. Before she could corner me again, I snuck upstairs and still fully clothed, was unconscious by the time my body hit the floor mattress.

My second time staying at a minshiku I didn’t have a wash because I had no idea where the washing place was.  In fact, I didn’t exactly know where I was either. After being turned away at the 12th temple where I had hoped to stay, I passed on sleeping on a bench outside of a Shinto shrine and kept walking despite it getting dusky in the mountains.  A village neatly arranged along one street hugging the curves of the valley looked fast asleep by the time I reached it minutes before sunset. The wooden window shutters and sliding doors of the squat houses let no light in and projected no signs of life out. Near the bus stop bathroom where I was now thinking of letting myself freeze that night, an old man in a dark blue woolen hat was standing near his car. “Something, something Japanese” he said. In reply I put my palms in sideways prayer and rested my icy cheek on them. “Sleep! I desperately want somewhere warm to sleep!” I’d hoped the gesture would convey. “Something else and one more thing in Japanese?”  I smiled, as he looked me over. He then made a gesture with his cupped hand, that after eight months of travel I learned could mean on of two things depending on the country— “Shoo, shoo, go away” or “come, come, right this way!” Not knowing if the person you’re speaking to wants you to depart immediately or come closer is about as much social anxiety as anyone can take.

Whether or not he intended me to, I followed the capped man down a driveway and into a warm house. He opened a door and pointing at a toilet, clarified by saying the only word I understood so far—“toilet” and then led me up the stairs to a room with bunk beds and a neat stack of blankets, said something else that I imagine was “bedroom,” and then departed. Given that it wasn’t my house, and that unlike my previous hosts this one was not keen on getting me into a tub of water, I decided to not raise the issue and settled for using the washing machine in the hallway or doing “laundry,” as my host called it.

By the time I was neck deep in a bath on the third night where this story began, I regretted declining the first offer so insistently and not being insistent enough the second time around.  There is just no feeling better than having your tired limbs submerged in water that’s at a temperature just shy of scorching in a bath where even a tall girl such as myself can have her knees and shoulders submerged.  Japanese bathtubs make American ones seem like ambitious kiddie pools.

In every accommodation, from the cheapest minshiku to the spa hotel I stayed in two weeks ago there are always two things waiting for me in my room—a wraparound robe, called a yukata and a porcelain tea set.  The robe sometimes comes with a very alluring flannel vest made for a man of Santa’s stature. To my delight, this post bath outfit is completely appropriate dinner attire, even if you have not shaved your legs in a desperate attempt to grow an additional layer of protection against the elements.

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What’s even better than wearing pajamas to dinner? Still wearing them at breakfast the next morning, of course! Though I must admit, my furry vested self is not as enthusiastic about the first meal of the day. My Americanized Russian stomach fails me when it is asked to eat bowl of rice and tiny translucent fish, their glistening eyes filled with horror before I’ve had a coffee.  I crave bacon. Or cheese. Or preferably both together with a fried egg on a bagel, with a touch of Heinz ketchup.  I think that if I were to end up at a table in hell, my punishment would be starting the day with a plate of seaweed while a breakfast sandwich lies just out of reach.

Does it sound like I’m complaining? If so, I have a confession to make—I’m actually reveling in the unconventional breakfast and the lack of language and the confusion about bath time.  After two decades of travel, I’ve all but lost that feeling of complete newness and unfamiliarity that is one of travel’s greatest gifts.  I’ve been incredibly lucky to see as much as I have, but with the exception of India (oh, India) everywhere I go I experience a flicker of recognition, even as I try my best to retain a sense of wonder.

I remember what it felt like to be on my own in Barcelona at the age of nineteen, learning to operate in a new world of tapas and siestas or how victorious I felt when I finally figured out how to order a cup of creamy coffee in France that isn’t just a shot of espresso with a side of milk. I clearly remember the relief I felt when finally, after some terrible drawings of a turtle and a stop at his English-studying daughter’s office our Mongolian taxi driver understood that my husband and I wanted to go Turtle Rock.

Enter Japan, where I am slowly making sense of the puzzle, one piece at a time. I now recognize some Japanese characters when I look at names of places, though only the ones that remind me of something—a robot, a TV stand, a window and a smiley face. I think I now know when someone is asking me where I’m from— “something something deska?” or maybe not, and I’m just the weird girl who only ever says “New York!” to every Japanese person who tries to talk to her. I’ve also found out that the bathtub I so happily jump into is a communal one, making it imperative to shower before getting in and to trust that the person before you has done the same. I’ve heard enough people reciting all of the mantras that I can imitate the melody and the rhythm of the shortest one and have successfully gotten it stuck in my head so that all day the inside of my head sounds like this: “On Abokya Beiroshanō Makabodara Mani Handoma Jinbara Harabaritaya Un” You didn’t even try reading that, did you. I understand, but trust me, it’s an improvement on what was I was singing on a loop before—“ Dōmo arigatō, Mr. Roboto.” Slippers still pose a challenge, as there are three pairs, one for the toilet, one for shared spaces, one for your room, but not on the bamboo matting.  Given that just today I face planted on a highway after tripping over my shoelaces, you won’t be surprised when I tell you I’ve ended up in bed still wearing my toilet slippers.

I know what you’re thinking— have I not heard of Google? Couldn’t I have just prepared myself more thoroughly? My answer is an emphatic yes. Absolutely, I could have done a whole lot more research and downloaded all the apps, and maybe asked more questions of my Japanese friends. I’ll let you in on another secret—I avoided doing all of that on purpose. I feel like I’m a new traveler again, the traveler I was before I took a punch in the face on a street in Paris, before the hospital stay in Hong Kong, before haggling with tuk-tuk drivers in Thailand, Cambodia and India. In Japan I get to be the slightly awkward, excited traveler I watch fumble at the MetroCard vending machine at Rockefeller Center, both disoriented and ecstatic at figuring out how to do the simplest of tasks.  Like opening a door, for example, which in addition to the anxiety provoking push or pull options, has the delightful sliding possibility in Japan.  I am a fumbling mess of faux pas like fashioning my yukata in a way that is customary to do only for the dearly departed.  But I am gleeful and grateful for the chance to see the world as brand new again, lighting up with recognition, one tiny sliver at a time.





One Response to Back to Basics in Japan.

  1. Fida says:

    I love every bit of your writing, and am so thoroughly entertained by what you experience. I love the way you are open to new cultures and how you deal with the unexpected (and doing things without to google them first). Glad I am with you on your pilgrimage, albeit just as an armchair reader, waiting in the warm and comfortable living room for the next installment 🙂

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