Travelling to Japan, I expected to find a world of contrasts. Japan, despite a long fascination with the West, has often struck me as one of the Asian countries that has least embraced global culture. Even in Tokyo, you will find many people do not speak English, do not eat Western food and live a modern lifestyle that to me seemed an evolution of their ancient traditions rather than a merging with the global culture so strongly marked by American companies, movies, clothing and food.
A short stay in the Buddhist monastery of Senju-In changed this perception. Here at the monastery, monks still live and practice ancient rituals, performing the Goma-ceremony every morning for some 1300 years. They worship Bishamon-Ten, the mountain god and his wife and son (yes, a trinity). We walked through a long, narrow, winding passage in complete darkness to surface in the light and discover who we were – a sort of rebirth in a way, and when this initiation is practiced without an English explanation to proceed it, it can be a little startling. I digress.
The monks sleep on tatami mats and share a communal bath. They chop wood from the forest to feed the fires of the Goma ceremony, and recently have begun to take in –mostly Japanese– lodgers to help balance the books. For twenty-four hours, I set aside my phone and the Internet and Facebook and enjoyed simple pleasures such as the rising sun viewed from the temple terrace or warm green tea sipped overlooking the temple gardens.
The Western visitors shared a taxi back to Oji station and when the taxi greeted us, he had a big smile; he also spoke more English than any other driver I’d yet met in Japan. “Last night, you sleep tatami? No bed?” “Yes,” I answered, “no bed.” “Ha! Very funny. You pay money, sleep on floor. In Japan, 70% people have bed now.” I realized that despite appearances, Japan too was adopting the Western culture. Like the Inuit pilot from Never Cry Wolf, or Robinson Crusoe’s Friday, Japan has Western beds, fast-food culture (with Japanese chains), and the Japanese sing Western songs, in broken English, over the karaoke machines. They have even replaced ceremonial bathing with automated cleaning devices in every hotel room (I won’t say more, and I didn’t try it). The global village is here, and we can only dream of what it replaced, or savor its last remnants in tiny pockets spread around the globe, whether in rural Japan, western Rumania, or Hillsboro, North Dakota.