Thousands of Miles from Home


Time and a Half

The original title of this entry was “Quite A Day.” But when being forced to choose between sleeping and blogging, I reluctantly caved and changed the name to “Quite a Few Days.” More procrastination quickly ushered in “Quite a Week,” which leads me to this entry. A decent sized chunk of time to recall, but I promise no pop quizzes at the end.

As far as exciting days go, Sunday was rather fun-filled. My host brother presented me with a vociferous wake-up call around 6:30 in the morning. Our destination was a temple in Okayama for Zazen meditation (perhaps more recognizable as simply "Zen"). I couldn't think of anything I wanted to do more than stay curled up in my own warm “Zen” ball on the futon, but I slowly crawled out of bed and downstairs for some breakfast. At 7 it was off to the temple, which was about 45 minutes away by car.

Arriving at Sogenji Temple (an international monastery), I spotted some foreigners walking around the premises with towels wrapped around their shaved heads on the crisp Sunday morning. The Zen temple in Okayama attracts many people from around the world who wish to study the art. I slipped off my shoes after passing through the main gate, noting being able to see my breath in the air, and entered a large tatami room where people had gathered for the morning meditation. After talking to a man who seemed to be in charge, I took a seat on a small cushion (zafu) in seiza style (on your knees, putting most of your weight on your heels). The “traditional” or “correct” method of meditation is called agura, which for lack of a better description is a very tight “Indian-style” sitting position that I could not attain. I sat in seiza for a good ten minutes, and just as started to get up and stretch my legs, the meditation began with the beating of a large drum. After the drumming, everyone in the room began chanting a certain prayer that I couldn't follow. After the prayer everyone sat quietly for another 20 minutes. That doesn’t seem too long, right? But after already having been seated for 10, my legs went numb and started to exhibit a dull constant pain below the waist (that's never good). I also lost the ability to wiggle my toes (probably not good either). Instead, I tried to focus on a point and think of nothingness. I was told, “As you sit, the mind takes on various postures.” My mind posture manifested itself as various rap and hip hop lyrics that melodically interrupted my thoughts of emptiness.

I usually keep track of time in half hour segments, about the length of a short television program. Sitting on my knees for 30 minutes in a chilly room seemed like a small eternity. By the end of the first session, signaled by the beating of the same large drum, I was ready for a wheelchair. Most people in the room quickly stood and began some leg stretches, while I lay paralyzed from the waist down. After a few minutes, I regained the strength to stand in a position similar to that of “homo-erectus”. I eventually rose and joined in what looked like some “Tai-chi” exercises before assuming the seiza position for the second round of meditation. During this session, once everyone had achieved a quiet sitting position, the two monks in charge walked through the rows of silent bodies with a large wooden paddle. One by one, the priests would stop, bow, then strike the meditating individual with the wooden bat four times on each shoulder. If nothing else, the shock of the bat took my mind off the cold and kept me from shivering. Additionally, my mind felt crystal clear and the musical interludes came to a stop. After everyone had been struck with the bat, another prayer was chanted and everyone left the room for some green tea (which I drank in a comfortable sitting position). While not my favorite 50-minute relaxation activity, Zazen was an interesting experience indeed.

After touring the grounds of Sogenji with a girl from Okayama University (also her first time at the meditation), my host mother and I drove back to the house, arriving around 10:53. I can pinpoint the exact time because as she went around back to open the door (we had both forgotten our key), I felt a level 3 earthquake that slightly shook the house and car. My host mother appeared at the door but had not felt anything at all. I told that that I was sure there had been an earthquake so we ran to the television to check the news. At first there was nothing, but after a few seconds a warning flashed on the screen that stated there had been a level 6 earthquake centered around Fukuoka. I messaged Rahul to make sure he was okay, but he replied later saying he had been sleeping at the time and didn’t feel a thing.

After the earthquake, I ate some lunch with my host mother and father at a ramen restaurant where we discussed Zen mediation. Afterwards, as if I hadn’t punished my legs enough, my host mother took me to meet her friend Mio’s husband who is a professional “Keirin” bicycle racer. “Keirin,” performed inside a “velodrome,” (two points if you know what I’m talking about without reading on) is a type of bicycle racing on a curved track that you may have seen on the Olympics. Mio’s husband races for a living, and agreed to let me, Amber, and Mark (two English teachers in the area) give it a try.

There is a velodrome close to where I live in Tai, but I never got the chance to be inside the building, let alone on the track itself. The bicycle used for racing is a fixed gear, which means you have to continue pedaling as you proceed around the track. It was quite windy that day, and I was informed that a good time for one lap around the track (400M) is 37 seconds. I breezed through with a cool 43 seconds on the first lap, but was spent by the second. Races usually consist of five laps, with the racers staying very close during the first three and then sprinting to the finish. The scariest part about Keirin was the curved sections of the track around the corners. The slightest movement of the handlebars sent the bike wobbling, and I could picture myself tumbling to the coarse sand and clay mixture below. After destroying my legs with meditation and biking, we took a break inside the locker room and watched a Keirin race broadcast live from another part of Japan.

The following day, I taught English classes in Tama for most of the day. Most of the classes were free talk and general conversation, so I had a blast and met some interesting people as well. One woman told me her job was “eating,” but later clarified that eating was in fact only her hobby. She ended up inviting me to a special invitation-only soba tasting event at a local man’s house in Tamano.

That evening my host family took me to “Cannery Row,” the delicious Italian restaurant in Okayama. I usually stick out wherever I go in Japan, but even more so when I wrote my name on the waiting list as “Ben-sama,” a very unconventional Japanese surname. The Maitre d' did a double take before announcing the name, but we were served just the same.

The following day, Wataru invited me to a rock show in Okayama at Club Desperado. His band, as well as 9 other high school rock bands in the Okayama area attended. Two of the bands were composed of only females; one played Avril Lavigne covers, which I have to admit were terrible, but redeemed themselves by finishing with an excellent Japanese song that I can’t remember but was super-thrilling at the time. The bassist in another band was sporting the largest base I have ever seen in my life. It was easily as tall as most of the girls in the club. He compensated by being an excellent base player, with singing that was not quite understandable yet decent.

Wataru’s band HOOP was excellent, as usual, heightened by the fact that I knew most of the lyrics and there were a ton of people in the club. For the most part, Japanese kids don’t seem to want to dance very much, but a few guys started moving around and got the whole crowd involved.

Tune in next time for the shamisen, accordion, and a little bit of Tsuyama fun.


  • Can we trade lives now. Mine is stale. I was just reading that great things come to those who make the best of every experience. The world is your oyster. We love you.

    By mom, at 11:07 AM  

  • Glad to hear that you weren't inconvenienced by the earthquake, Ben. I was going to ask, but that would involve figuring out where you are in relation to the epicenter so as to not look like a geographical idiot, and that was just too much work.

    By Donna, at 9:15 PM  

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