We had narrowed it down to two choices: Camp Lejuene, NC or Japan. For me, it was not a tough decision. I desperately wanted to see more of the world, and I knew that I’d probably never travel to Japan on my own. I was ecstatic when we got orders to Yokosuka, and I started doing everything I could to prepare myself for our move.
Because I was so excited about moving to Japan, I was completely surprised by the culture shock when it hit me. I knew that I would have some trouble adjusting to a new place, and an unknown language, but those first six months were really hard. I doubted whether or not I should have moved.
But then, Japan wooed me. I could not help but fall in love with its mountains that so comfortingly reminded me of East Tennessee. I fell in love with its kind and proud people, always willing to help a confused-looking foreigner who is obviously lost. I loved the food – especially katsudon, a Japanese comfort food of fried meat on top of steaming rice cooked with green onions and egg. I loved the wonderful mix of old and new: modern houses with all the usual amenities, but with intergenerational families living in them, sleeping on tatami mats with futons every evening; ancient temples in the middle of bustling modern cities; young girls talking on their cell phones while wearing kimonos. I adored the ancient history of the country, which was in stark contrast to the young America I grew up in.
Most of all, I loved visiting the temples. Oh, the temples. There is nothing quite like walking up to the front gate of an ancient Zen Buddhist temple, and stepping over the large beam of wood, hundreds of years old, which divides the ordinary from the sacred. Temple grounds enchant me. It’s as though I can feel the history seeping out of the earth. I felt the same way in the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France. I was listening to mass in this large, looming cathedral, and I took my shoes off so that I could feel the cold stone floor beneath me. I knew that countless others had walked on those floors before me, all connected by a belief in something larger than themselves. The temples of Japan evoke the same feeling in my soul.
One of the most meaningful experiences I’ve had in Japan has been taking part in zazen, or Zen Buddhism’s sitting meditation. I still remember how giddy I was to go to my first zazen session at Kenchoji temple in Kamakura. I could not believe that after studying Eastern religions in college, I was now walking into an ancient Buddhist temple in Japan to sit with monks and meditate. I fell in love with the scent of incense wafting through the temple; the faint aroma of aged wood. I loved the way my bare feet felt against the woven tatami mats on the floor, and the feel of the cushion underneath me as we sat and bowed to each other before beginning zazen. I became completely addicted to the calm of the room as these human beings came together to quiet their minds, taking what was probably the only moment in their day to be still, listen, and feel the world around them.
I never dreamed that I’d be friends with Buddhist priests, or that I’d fall in love with the practice of zazen (who ever thought I’d be able to sit still, and in silence, for almost an hour?!). I never dreamed that a foreign country in Asia would become another place I called home. And I never knew that I’d fall so deeply in love with Japan that it hurt my heart to leave.
I went to visit Dokuonji temple, the temple of my friend Fujio san, on Tuesday night before flying out of Japan the next day. I could barely get out of the car when I arrived. I knew that it would be the last time, in the foreseeable future, that I’d step into that temple. Over the course of the last two years, Dokuonji temple became MY temple. It’s been years since I felt comfortable in a church, and this temple became my church. It became the place where I could go and feel closer to God. Each visit had me leaving with a wonderful stirring in my soul.
On that last night, I talked with Fujio san, and could barely hold back the tears. Fujio san was no better. We talked about how much we have enjoyed each other’s friendship, and how much the temple had meant to me. We talked about my divorce, and he lovingly told me that he would always support me, and that I had no need to blame myself, or my husband, for what was happening. We then sat in zazen together for a while, me wiping back tears as we began. Just as it was supposed to, zazen calmed my feelings of grief and anxiety, dulling them just enough to make them more manageable. I felt immense gratitude as I sat there in the darkness, listening to crickets outside, and smelling the incense stick that I’d lit upon my arrival. These experiences are what life is about.
My life in Japan was a blessing. Even knowing what I know now about my marriage and what was to come, I would not have done anything differently. I needed Japan. I needed to grow in my spiritual practice, to challenge myself in ways that made me feel vulnerable, and to expand the world for my children and myself.
Thank you, Japan. I love you and will miss you terribly. You will always have a piece of my heart.