This past Saturday I was walking down the sidewalk in Asakusa, Tokyo on my way to this amazing candy shop to learn how to make amezaiku, which is a traditional Japanese folk art technique that is hundreds of years old and very few people are still practicing in Japan. Part of the reason why is because the techniques have never been written down, so it’s more of an oral tradition. It involves taking warm colored pieces of taffy-like candy and using various tools to sculpt it into beautiful animals before it cools (which only takes about 3 minutes). Which would have made for a really cool experience, but alas this blog post is obviously not about that tale.
Instead, I was stopped by an adorable little old Japanese woman who was with a flock of other little old Japanese women.
“Hello.” she said with biggest smile on her face.
“Um, hi.” I said, glancing over at the other Japanese women who wore the same big smiles and friendly waves.
“You want to see local Buddhist temple?” She asked me in the little English she knew, still smiling.
I didn’t want to be rude and I didn’t have the heart to tell her no and I had some time to spare before my reservation at the amezaiku shop, so why not? I thought.
One of the other old ladies handed me a flyer, but before I could read it, one of the old ladies had hooked her arm in mine and was leading me into the building they were standing in front of and up the stairs.
This probably should’ve been my first clue. What kind of a temple is on the second floor of a building? The old lady could probably tell what I was thinking because she said that the temple was very small. But when we reached the top of the stairs the room we entered reminded me of a church basement….with a shrine set up in the middle of the room with monks walking around…
I relaxed a little bit when I saw a few other gaijin in the room as well, telling myself that this was probably some kind of community center where they liked to teach foreigners more about Japanese culture and this was Buddhism week. Maybe the monks were going to perform some kind of ceremony.
My thought almost seemed palpable when they brought out a little film explaining the history of Buddhism that followed the Lotus sutra.
And then the little old lady took some beads out of her purse and placed them on my middle fingers.
then she mimed for me to press my palms together, and took out a piece of paper with the words “Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo” written on it.
And she said, “This is a chant for happiness.”
So, of course I didn’t want to be rude, so I started chanting…for like 10 minutes. The entire time the old woman just kept smiling at me and nodding in encouragement. And then she showed me a book of the people all over the world that had joined their Buddhist sect. People from Ghana, Singapore, Italy, America, and all over the place. Another sign that probably should’ve sounded the alarms…
Why didn’t I flee then? Well I was trying to give these people the benefit of the doubt and instead was developing a checklist in my head. That was strike one.
Then a younger woman who spoke almost fluent English came out and sat with me, and began telling me about how there are shrines all over the world, six in America alone, and that I was so lucky to live in Illinois because there is a shrine so close to me in Chicago. Then she went on a tangent explaining the differences between Buddhism and Christianity, and how there is only one truth (which I later learned was one of the major beliefs of her religion).
By now I’m formulating ideas on how to get myself out of this, when the little old Japanese lady asks me if I would like to see a special ceremony. Now this question fit more into the “Let’s Teach Foreigners About Buddhism” tourist trap I thought I had fallen into, so I took the bait. Next thing I know, the monks were smiling at me expectantly and the women were bringing me papers to fill out my personal information.
“Why do I need to fill this out?” I asked.
“So that way the community can stay in contact with you wherever you are in the world.” She replied. Obviously I had missed something here.
Then the little old lady was pulling out the book again and pointing between the people and me. Talk about lost in translation, because she hadn’t been asking if I wanted to see a ceremony, she was asking if I wanted to be in the ceremony.
Strike Three. I had to get out of here.
So I checked the time (it had been an hour) and made up some lame excuse about how I would think about it, but was late to meet some friends. When actually I had totally missed my super cool candy making lesson.
But as I was leaving the room the younger woman started saying that fate had brought me here today and that if I leave and come back I may not be able to join them. There’s only three strikes in baseball, so I guess that was the icing on the cake. I was officially convinced that in all of the places and people in Tokyo, of course I had managed to walk into some Buddhist cult.
So once I escaped, I spent the rest of the day at the Sky Tree, which was lovely by the way.
If you would like to know more about these Buddhists, the click here.
Happy adventuring, right?
***The featured picture in for this post is the head temple, Nichiren Shoshu temple at the bottom of Mt. Fuji.
「もちろん です」言いました。飴細工に行きました、が 失礼ない でした。
「もちろん です」言いました。失礼ない でした。