I traveled to Japan in February of 2020, en route to a semester in New Zealand, with the intention of studying Zen Buddhism and local philosophical traditions in practice, and how these traditions affect daily life for their practitioners and their surrounding culture. I spent 2 days in Nagano, where I visited the Zenkoji Temple, a major Buddhist temple, and attended a sunrise mass. Before mass, a local woman noticed my uncertainty and approached me, helpfully explaining some of the traditions of the temple and asking questions about where I’d travelled from. She explained how she and many others go to Zenkoji Temple every single morning at sunrise to receive a blessing from the head priest. Before the mass, as the head priest approaches the temple, visitors line up to receive a blessing, which felt like an auspicious start to the trip. After spending some time listening to the monks praying, I went through a completely darkened tunnel beneath the temple. Built underneath the temple’s statue of the Buddha, you spend about 15 minutes walking with no light at all, using only a rope along the wall to guide you. There is a key attached to one wall that, if you find it, is supposed to bring salvation. Experiencing a Buddhist temple solidified to me concepts that I’d learned during Asian Philosophy classes while at SLU, bringing these esoteric ideas from the page to reality, and showing me how some Buddhists incorporate prayer and meditative practices into everyday life.
After some time in Nagano, I traveled a few hours outside the city to the Hakuba Valley. The Hakuba valley is filled with Shinto temples, which is Japan’s indigenous religion and one which celebrates nature. Some shrines were small roadside ones, and others were larger and had multiple buildings. One had a grove of ancient cedar trees which were marked off as sacred and revered objects, and were among the tallest trees I'd ever seen. It was interesting to compare the more elaborate, formal Buddhist temple in the city of Nagano with the smaller, more accessible and nature-centric Shinto shrines scattered throughout the Hakuba valley. This trip was an incredible, immersive experience in a culture and a place so different from the US, that I never would have gotten the chance to travel to without SLU’s support. After months of quarantine and with no prospect of leaving the country anytime soon, I feel lucky to have had the chance to travel and experience life so far from home.