Departing our guest room at the Akizuno Garten before sunrise, my friend Diana and I arrived for our morning appointment at the Senko-Ji temple, a sanctuary located on the outskirts of Tanabe City in the Wakayama Prefecture of Japan. Trekking up a curved slope and climbing a series of stone steps, we found ourselves near a graveyard from which we could hear Iwahashi Zenichi, a Buddhist priest, already at work. Wearing a navy kimono and a set of wooden juzu prayer beads around his neck, he knelt on a bright silver and crimson pillow before an altar. I watched as he played a set of Tibetan-style black bowls while using a mallet to thrum a mokugyo, a wooden drum in the shape of a fish, in preparation for his daily routine: a Zazen meditation.
And yet, there was something about the challenge of it all—of navigating somewhere I’d never been, spending time with people whose language I didn’t speak—that was invigorating, even if there were a few hilarious lost-in-translation moments along the way. No matter how many times we fumbled our wrong words, the Japanese people we encountered always greeted us with kindness and empathy: from the convenience store attendant who closed her register to help me locate ear drops, to a hotel manager who insisted on leaving her post to deliver us to a nearby temple we were struggling to locate. It’s the unscripted moments, after all, that make the journey worthwhile.