It was pouring rain.
There is an unspoken ritual of the umbrella in Japan. When entering a property, you close your umbrella as you bow through the covered gateway and reopen it as you emerge into the courtyard on the other side. Restaurants, shops, museums, and even trains provide umbrella holders near the entrance or at your seat. Some even have umbrella lockers, and offer complimentary umbrellas to use in their garden. Everyone has an umbrella, and everyone needs one. The iconic roof forms with flared corners are really just glorified umbrellas over the airy structures below.
So a little rain is to be expected. But this was not a little rain. It was pouring.
We had started our day in bright sunshine over Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo's frenetic equivalent of Times Square. From there we strolled through the opulent Omotesando shopping district to the understated Nezu Museum. It started sprinkling on us in the museum's garden, and we raised our borrowed umbrellas.
Despite the rain we decided to keep moving towards our next destination, the Mori Tower in Roppongi Hills, which had a conceptual art gallery, observation deck, and most importantly, a bar. If the rain got worse on our way we could just find a shrine or temple to pop into until it passed. We returned our borrowed umbrellas and grabbed our compact travel umbrellas out of the umbrella locker.
The rain got worse. Our flimsy umbrellas were no match for it.
I pulled out our map and found one of the small red icons designating a Buddhist temple just ahead of us. We ducked into the courtyard and parked ourselves under a small covered sign board next to a graveyard, facing the temple across the courtyard.
"Should we go in?" I asked Erin.
"I don't know, it looks like something's going on."
Cars had been pulling into the courtyard, and men in suits were directing them to parking areas. The people walking up the steps weren't the camera-toting sightseers we had seen at many other temples. They were nicely dressed, together with their families and children on what should have been a school and work day.
The temple building was large but not as refined as some of the more historical temples we had been visiting. It was clearly a functioning temple, and its congregation was arriving for a service.
"We should leave," Erin said.
"But it's pouring rain! We'll get soaked."
"Well, we can't go in there with all those people. I don't want to interrupt them," she replied.
"We can't stay here," I said. The small roof above our heads gave us little cover. "Let's just see if we can go sit on the steps until the rain lets up."
She reluctantly agreed and we raised our umbrellas to scurry across the courtyard to the temple steps, under cover of the sweeping roof above.
"We can't go up there, Tim."
She was right. It had gotten busier, with temple-goers flowing up the steps out of the rain. We did not belong here.
"But it's pouring rain," I pleaded. "Let me just go check it out."
I closed my umbrella and started up the steps to the first landing. I removed my shoes and parked them in a cubby with all the others.
From the landing I could see into the doorway a few more steps above me. I stood there for a moment looking in, trying to get a sense of what all the fuss was about.
A young shaven-headed monk in an orange robe materialized in the doorway before me. He locked eyes with me. I had been caught peeking.
He started approaching me, waving his arms frantically. But he wasn't warning me off - he was beckoning me to come inside.
I turned and looked back down the steps at Erin, wide-eyed with panic. She somehow managed to roll her eyes at me despite the look of sheer terror mirrored on her own face.
She hurriedly slipped off her shoes and followed me up the steps. You can't say no to a monk.
He led us into the temple, which was filling up with people facing a raised altar at the front. The outside walls along the back and sides of the space were lined with identical orange-robed monks, kneeling shoulder to shoulder, motionless, like a scene out of Mortal Kombat.
Continuing his persuasive silent gestures, our guide enthusiastically escorted us along the back and up the side in front of the kneeling monks. The timber floor was soft beneath our feet, polished smooth by decades of shuffling socks. He pointed us to two pillows on the floor in the second row from the altar. As we took our places kneeling awkwardly with the rest of the congregation, he smiled, bowed, and vanished.
Our folded umbrellas and raincoats dripped pools of water on the soft pillows and woven straw tatami mats beneath us. We were relieved to be out of the rain, but now immensely uncomfortable with the situation we (I) had gotten ourselves stuck in, with no idea when or how we would get out of it.
Then the ceremonies began.
The monks kneeling around the perimeter of the room went into motion. They began a series of choreographed rituals, moving all around us to bring things from the back and sides of the room up to the front to prepare the altar. Their movements were punctuated with the timed ringing of bells from different locations in the room. The crisp high-pitched sound cut through the white noise of the rain outside. The bells continued through a series of rhythmic single-note chants as the monks came to kneel side by side at the front of the room. Flames were lit and we were soon awash in the intoxicating scent of incense.
We easily forgot about the rain, and the city, and the rest of the world beyond it as we allowed ourselves to be absorbed into the hypnotic sensory spectacle.
Eventually, the monks ceremoniously escorted an older priest in more elaborate robes up to be seated at the altar, clearly someone of importance. He spoke for a period of time in short phrases in a low monotone voice, then joined the other monks in their chanting drone.
The monks started further preparations at the altar. They moved back out into the crowd and began escorting people row by row up to the altar for some kind of individual ritual, perhaps similar to communion in a Christian church.
Erin nudged me, and I nodded. Without knowing how much longer all of this would go on, and without wanting to embarrass ourselves or our gracious hosts at the altar, we took this as our cue to exit. When our row stood up we gathered our sopping belongings and slipped down the side aisle to exit.
The rain had let up. We slid our shoes back on and walked slowly down the steps, with the sounds of the temple fading behind us. We didn't speak until we had crossed the courtyard and exited the gate back onto the busy streets of Tokyo.
When we did speak, we said the only words that could properly commemorate our past hour of religious immersion in the temple.
We probably could have remained in New England during my year-long experiment with career suicide. We probably could have saved even more money (or I should say, lost less money). We would have had more family support for the kids. We would have seen more of our friends. We would have avoided all of the painful transitions from one place to another. We might have had more time to pursue projects and activities we are passionate about.
So then, why travel?
Our experience in the Tokyo temple five years ago was something of an awakening for me. I realized that the experience of travel is not primarily about seeing the sights, or tasting the food, or buying the souvenirs. That is what tourists do, and nobody wants to just be a tourist.
What, then, makes the difference between a tourist and a traveler?
Being a traveler means allowing yourself to be confronted by the culture you're visiting, no just to peek in through the doorway at it. It's about getting comfortable with getting uncomfortable.
When we explore unfamiliar places, we set ourselves up for failure in the most basic tasks of our daily life. It forces us to be vulnerable, to accept the empathy of others trying to help us, and to express humility and gratitude in return. These are the kinds of experiences that can change us.
We try to plan all the things we want to see and do in each location. God forbid we miss some must-see photo opportunity along the way. But the tourist sights are often let-downs, merely satisfying our preconceived expectations. Our most memorable experiences are not things we can capture in a photo. They are the disruptions to our best-laid plans that allow for discovery of the unexpected.
This sense of discovery is what creates our lasting memories. The temple ceremony isn't just one of the most memorable experiences I've had traveling, it is one of the most memorable experiences of my life. This is why we travel.
We travel to invite the unexpected.
We travel because we want to be changed.
We travel to have a life worth remembering.
I tried to make that a haiku.