It is not like me to be lost for words and in my mind I had planned exactly what this blog was going to be about. But then I met him and now I am lost for words.
For the past two days, I have been in Koya-san, a very special UNESCO World Heritage Site town nestled amongst eight low mountain peaks, only a couple of hours from Osaka. The area was founded about twelve centuries ago by a Buddhist monk whose wish was to establish a monastery deep in the mountains, far from worldly distractions.
I had planned to describe the experience I had at 5.30am on the first morning, walking through the Okunoin cemetery and sacred area, set amongst huge cedar trees and filled with over 2,000 moss-covered gravestones. It filled me with awe to enter such a special area as I made my way to the huge, lantern-filled mausoleum hall to watch the monks going through their chanting and rituals.
I had planned to write about Jukai - a very moving and ancient ceremony dating back over 2,500 years and conducted by a fully ordained Buddhist master. It allows laypeople (like me) to be given the Buddhist precepts (rules) for living a wholesome and virtuous life. Picture a small, dark temple room, a few candles providing just enough light to silhouette the master monk, me sitting on the floor, chanting (in Japanese) with an assistant monk and being called up to the alter to be presented with a small record document.
I had planned to say more about my overnight stay in a Shukubo (temple lodging). Of the 117 temples in Koya-san, 52 offer lodging and meals to pilgrims - a tradition started long ago. Even with the animated group of Italian visitors (particularly Marco and Gianni who seemed to keep getting lost and discussing their next moves while standing outside my rice-paper thin doors), it was a special experience staying in a working temple. Besides, where else can you sit on the floor in your room, in your bathrobe, sipping sake and eating Shojin Ryori, a delicious Buddhist vegan meal with lashings of tofu.
I had planned to describe this morning’s ceremony in the meditation hall, where I sat, mesmerised by the monks chanting sutras while the flames from the blessing ceremony flickered in the background.
But as I was leaving, I met him - a Swiss Buddhist priest who has been living in that very temple in Koya-san for the past 16 years. As we talked for the next couple of hours, he remembered. We had met at a bakery in Laos, with a random comment about my leaving Luang Prabang to travel to Myanmar. I had no idea he was a monk and no idea we would meet again, in his temple.
And so, as I prepare to leave Japan, I am lost for words - lost as to how I could possibly describe the contrasts and wonder of this country.
The travel gallery will hopefully convey more of what my words cannot: