Two years later

I will never forget the morning of March 11, 2011. On a spring break trip with two of my best friends, we woke up to the devastating news of the Tohoku earthquake and resulting tsunami.

Two years later, on March 11, 2013, I woke up in Japan on a beautiful spring day. In the morning, I learned the expression “hinata boko,” a Japanese expression meaning “relaxing in the sun.” It wasn’t until the afternoon when my school observed a moment of silence that I remembered the significance of that day.

During that moment of silence, my mind raced. However, eventually, I decided to reflect on my personal volunteer experience. After the earthquake, many organizations began volunteer trips to support relief efforts and encourage tourism. Last November, with WhyNot!? Japan, I traveled to the Tohoku region and volunteered for a man named Mr. Sato. We listened to him recount the day of the disaster. Pointing to the ocean and to a road that had been split by the earthquake, he told us his story with such appreciation for life. His courage and perseverance awed me. Surrounded by mounds of debris, he told this story while helping us plant tulips in his garden—his possessions still broken, but his spirit strongly intact.

Photo by Hiroki Miura

Photo by Hiroki Miura

Photo by Hiroki Miura

Photo by Hiroki Miura

This man and others like him offer hope to a country that is still coping with disaster. The disaster united people in support and simultaneously fueled protests. Today, there are debates about reconstruction, decontamination efforts and nuclear energy usage. Charged by the passion of leaders on both sides, I hope these debates, lead to advancement and action. I hope that this passion is utilized to build a strong future for those in Tohoku.

Further, no matter where life takes me, I hope to live with the passion that I saw in my brief encounter with Mr. Sato. No matter where life takes me, March 11 will forever be a day in which my heart is in Japan.

Photo by Hiroki Miura

Photo by Hiroki Miura

Temple stay in Koyasan

Coming from the southeastern region of the states, my knowledge of Japanese, strike that, Asian history and culture was seriously lacking prior to my arrival to Japan. Not only did my high school world history class breeze through the chapter (yes, one chapter) of East Asian history, but to further my ineptitude, I went on to college and studied American and British literature and English writing and grammar. Therefore, in the realm of Japanese history and culture, I still have a lot of catching up to do.

However, with the international exchange group, WhyNot!?, I traveled to Mount Koya in Wakayama prefecture in order to stay in a temple and observe the practices of a particular sect of Japanese Buddhism. As of now, I have already discredited myself as an open book of Japanese culture, but I do know that several of my Japanese friends and acquaintances affiliate themselves with Buddhism. However, other than common practices, such as praying at shrines or participating in certain holiday events, I have never been exposed to or had the opportunity to observe more traditional Buddhist practices.

On the path towards Okunoin Temple, the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi

With a group of about 40 people, I stayed in Henjo-koin, a temple built by Kobo Daishi. Together, we hiked through the mountains and enjoyed the surrounding town. We learned ajikan meditation, practiced shakyo or shabutsu (copying sutras or tracing Buddha) and ate vegetarian Buddhist meals. During our stay in the temple, an older Buddhist man guided us through and explained all these customs. Contrary to the serious and incredibly composed Buddhist I had in mind, he was warm and welcoming, had an incredible sense of humor and was always eager to show us his religious customs.

Tracing the Buddha; Cable car sign at the top of Mount Koya; Vegetarian meal; and last but not least, the town's cute mascot, Koya-kun

Kobo Daishi oversaw the construction of the Garan or Koyasan's central temple complex. The big bright orange pagoda is called Konpon Daito Pagoda.

Many people travel to Koyasan as religious pilgrims who are striving for a deeper understanding. I wanted to visit in order to be exposed to different religious practices, see the beautiful town of Koya and make new friends. Traveling with WhyNot!? was a great way to explore a new place and meet an incredible group of people! I’m looking forward to my next trip with these fabulous new friends!