Clambering the gantry and being cajoled into position by chirpy Japanese grandmothers, it was hard to fathom exactly how we’d found ourselves in this position. It was a bright, if chilly day in Chiba prefecture, two hours across the bay from Tokyo, and we were about to star in a group photo celebrating the graduation of 10 new Buddhist monks. In 20 years time, surely the same chattering wives and mothers who were being so friendly would look back on this snap and wonder who the hell those two beaming gaijin standing at the back were.
We’d been brought to Chiba by Mizuki, Keeley’s language exchange friend. His brother was one of the 10 new monks and we were here to witness him arrive back into society after 100 days of fasting and meditation. After setting out at 6am from Tokyo, we were bleary-eyed when we hard the first distant sounds of drums and chanting. Yet when the 10 arrived at the temple gates, clothed in white robes and led down by temple elders, we were mesmerised.
Standing around the ‘God tree’, where this Buddhist sect’s founder was first enlightened, the new monks clicked castanet-like instruments and chanted an ancient Japanese mantra. After quarter of an hour or so of this, they disappeared to prepare for their cleansing ritual, while we took to the assembled gantry for the family photo.
On their return, the monks had stripped down to just a single cloth covering their modesty, chanting as they were led to ten bamboo buckets filled with icy water. As they grew louder, the water began flying. Drenched, these ten men were being purified in body and mind. This was a truly magical experience and one we would never have seen on a regular temple tour through the tourist hotspots of Kyoto and Nara.
Having left Mizuki’s brother to his religious duties, we drove up into the hills to his family’s own temple. Here we slipped off our shoes and entered a freezing cold yet amazingly welcoming environment. We lit incense, prayed and then ate stunning okonomiyaki, made Osaka-style (like an omelette) by the temple’s housekeeper. She claimed to have sensed that our small party was coming, despite not having been told.
After a second lunch of tempura, we visited our final temple. Here we were told our fortunes and hung then on a nearby tree, before being taken inside and instructed in writing out a prayer in kanji by a resident monk, who then placed them in a beautiful golden Buddha.
Undoubtedly, this was the most moving and interesting day of the trip so far. Having taken in so many temples, it was a privilege to go to one and be given the inside track on exactly how they work and why they hold such an important place in Japanese culture.