“So was there anything left you wished you’d done?” Yuko asked me over our last dinner together.
There might be, but as the train wends down the mountain, back towards Osaka, as I watch the cedar forest turn into tiny, hillside fruit farms, and wisteria bloom when up on the mountain cherry blossoms are at their peak, I feel utterly satisfied.
There is a sense of bittersweetness to everything, and I’m constantly making mental notes, and lists of lasts.
Last time we all ate together, at our lunch table; last, sunny sunrise seen from my window, its warmth hitting the red, peaked and gabled roof of Daimyoin rising above the smaller houses, framed by the mountain, and the cedar forest; last fire ceremony, bathed in smoke and buffeted by the beating taiko drum. 7 months has gone so incredibly fast.
But I spent an utterly splendid last week, where everything cooperated, including the weather, when loose ends were tied up, and bright memories made. I feel ready to go.
I made this graphic my first week in Koya. I hit two out of three of my goals and survived all of my fears. By the end of the 7 (not 6) months, my Japanese had improved to the point that I was able to understand ambient conversations happening around me – though I never reached any level of understanding the boys’ mix of in-jokes, anime quotes and imitating each other. I think I showed pretty solidly the ability to work, and succeed in the temple kitchen environment – and not just me either. My friends Johnna and Chelsey came to try out the work for a week each, and Jack, of course, survived a hectic cleaning schedule alongside the monks.
I didn’t finish any creative projects, however. I collected a mountain of footage – photos, film, and audio – that even organisation defies. Amongst the long list of coming soons include an interview series with some temple women, a video exploring the concept of identity and place called Where Are You From?, a series on why the monks chose their professions, a zombie movie trailer, and a promotional video for the temple that became my home. I hope to make a short audio packet on Jack’s experience as a complete outsider immersed fully in a very Japanese environment, Instagram movies of the fire ceremonies, and a lot of photos uploaded to Facebook.
What other changes? I gained 3 or 4 kilos thanks to an increasingly samey diet of udon, soba, curry and pork cutlets, and the delicious snacks the Okusan brought us every day. I will miss the variety of the biscuits and cakes – and the chance to try incredibly expensive treats like 100% cherry juice ($30 for 500mls) that were passed down to us from benevolent masters.
I learned that Koyasan is like an onion, and I was barely past unwrapping the skin when I left. Some aspects of Koyasan, like the fact that there are temples you can actually visit without paying to stay, I learned in my last week.
What will I miss? My girls. My sisters. My senpai, always taking care of me when I was upset, or sick, but also like a cool, big sister kind of wishing I wasn’t around when she wanted to chat with Yuko. Yuko, always laughing, always able to read my mood. Always forgiving when I stole her natto reserves. Momoka, the passionate, artistic one who pushed me to create with her. Haku, the kindly grandmother, generous with presents, and the one to keep track of how the menu would change for the matsu course guests on their third night.
I will miss sitting on the roof and watching the sunset. I will miss the stillness and green light of the Inari shrine near my temple. I will miss going to Bon On Sha and drinking Vero’s chai and chatting with her and Takeshi. I will miss riding my bike along the street, with the blue sky overhead, and the clean, mountain air in my lungs. I will miss my room above the kitchen, only 30 seconds from bed to work, which was a godsend on the two occasions I overslept. I will miss the bath that is always full, and hot; the comfy chair by the inner garden where I would sit during my morning break; and afternoons writing, sitting on the sun-warmed wood of the meditation hall’s balcony.
But yet, there are no regrets about leaving. I scratched off all the final to-dos on my list, and though there are still a few temples I hope to go see one day, there has to be something to look forward to next time I go back.
My final night working on rice duty, I finished wiping down the bench and set all the rice cookers for the following morning. This job which caused me so much stress was now something familiar, fun even. That night, a customer had told Inge san, the deputy monk, personally that the rice was the most delicious he had tasted in all of Koyasan. I waited for the other girls to push down their time-cards, and head back to the restroom, before I turned and gave a little bow and prayer of thanks to the rice station.
It seemed like the thing to do.