I got back from my pilgrimage (the Kumano Kodo) over a two months ago. Just one week after I returned the jetlag had worn off, the worry-free vacation bliss had melted away, and I had settled right back into the well worn groove of my morning commute. It’s a little sad when you think about it, but there are a few stirring lessons that were impressed upon me during my trip that have actually stuck with me and altered the way I think and even eat in the months that I’ve been back. This is what I learned on my Buddhist pilgrimage.
1. I found the easiest path to enlightment
I visited Mount Koya (Kōyasan), a tiny, secluded town on top of a mountain that’s home to over a hundred Buddhist temples and Japan’s largest and holiest cemetery, Okunoin. It was on a night tour of the cemetery that a monk told me that the “easiest way to pursue enlightenment, is to clean your room.”
He said that what you see has a physical effect on how you feel. You see something disgusting, and you feel disgusting. You see something creative, and you feel creative. You see something dirty, and you feel dirty. Therefore, when your room is dirty or cluttered, then your mind is cluttered too. While I have always known this logically, to hear a monk explain it in terms of enlightenment gave it even more weight and bearing. I left the cemetery with a very strong urge to come home and clean my entire apartment, and I’m happy to say that is exactly what I did when I got home. I even donated a lot of things that I had been holding on to for a very long time, and afterwards I genuinely did feel lighter.
2. I try to eat 30 things a day
While having dinner with a friend of a friend in Kyoto, we got into a conversation about what Americans eat for dinner and what Japanese people eat for dinner. My dad and I had commented that all of the meals we’d had in Japan consisted of about 10 small plates arranged on a tray with many different types of cooked vegetables, fish, tofu, rice, miso, and a variety of pickled foods. Sometimes the fish had been caught by the owner of the restaurant that morning, and the vegetables had been foraged from the area. I was asking Chiko-san how long it takes for her to make her meals, because it seems to take me forever to cook and I usually only prepare one dish, not 10. She said that in Japan, they try to eat 30 things a day, whatever’s in season, and that she tries to stick to that.
30 things? That seems like a lot.
“But it’s not so hard,” she said, she picked up one of the small dishes in front of her and said “look, here are 5 just in this bowl,” and she was right. A small piece of sweet potato, a piece of eggplant, a mushroom, and a couple of vegetables I didn’t know the name of (I ate so much food that I couldn’t identify in Japan). It’s a fairly simple rule for ensuring that you’re getting a variety of nutrients every day, and one that I’ve tried to be mindful of. I can’t say I’ve hit 30 every day, but I did make miso soup as a side dish last night and I threw a bunch of leftover vegetables into it – asparagus, green onions, tofu, seaweed. I think Chiko-san would approve.
3. I discovered gardening is life
During my trip I found myself in rural villages and fishing towns as well as the major cities of Tokyo and Kyoto, and I noticed that everyone – and I mean everyone – was growing something. In the villages, even if they had a small yard they were growing tomatoes, squash, beautiful flowers, green tea bushes (I’d never seen a green tea bush before!) and even small rice paddies the size of a swimming pool. In the cities every home had a garden of 10 or more potted plants on their patch of sidewalk, and early every morning I saw people tending to their plants. What was especially impressive were the old men and women who looked well beyond their 80s who were out pruning and weed whacking and putting my small balcony garden to shame. A common refrain on the trip was “no wonder they live so long.” Not only do they eat 30 foods a day, they’re seasonal, organic, and fresh from their garden. Say it with me now, “no wonder they live so long.”
4. I learned to take pride in what you have
In addition to tending to their gardens in the morning, I saw many people washing their sidewalks and sweeping the street in front of their business and the sidewalk, both on their side as well as across the street. They were cleaning it. You won’t find trash, cigarette butts, or even dirt in the gutter, and I don’t just mean high end businesses and homes. The same goes for jobs. No matter what the task, it’s done with care. No eye rolls or tone of voice making it painfully obvious that you hate your job. I ran an errand at a post office and I was treated like a dignitary. The attendant who checked our tickets on the train bowed to us. It goes without saying but my dad said it anyway – our transportation officials could learn a thing or two from them.
5. I experienced the power of onsen
Want to go into a room of total strangers and some people that you know and maybe some family members totally nude and sit on stools while washing yourself before getting into a hot tub together? No? I didn’t either, but determined to stay open to every experience that came my way I tried out an onsen. And then I did it again the next morning, and again the next day, and then we traveled to an onsen town and I got to go in the country’s oldest onsen and also the smallest. It was a small cabin that sits in a spring and the pool was only big enough for two people to sit in. Needless to say, I got really into the onsen life.
I’ve tried to find the words to describe how peaceful and rejuvenating it is to sit in a hot tub and wash the day off with the community every day is, but I can’t do it justice. And what’s worse, is I couldn’t even get Instagram-happy and document the whole experience because everyone was naked. So you’re just going to have to take a hot bath tonight and experience it for yourself. For the full experience, invite your friends and neighbors.