(Before you start reading this post, I invite you to open this video and leave the music on the background. Trust me, it’s a beautiful song from one of Japan’s best animations, “Spirited Away”, created by master Hayao Miyazaki.)
After five months working as a GSK PULSE volunteer in the Philippines, I decided to take a break over the holidays to visit Japan, the country where many beloved characters from my childhood were born. Over the course of 3 weeks, I went from Tokyo to Osaka, from Osaka to Hiroshima, from Hiroshima to Kyoto, and finally back to Tokyo – besides many other small towns in the middle. No, I did not bump into Mario Bros or Princess Zelda or Pikachu during my trip. I did, though, visit around 30 different temples, and let myself immerse into the country’s respect for the old, for traditions, and learn from their beliefs and ideals.
To me, a non-religious person, a temple is this figurative space where I can visit to just sit down, close my eyes, feel nature around me and (excuse me for the neologism) to notbe. The act of notbeing is when you tone down all those feelings that make you anxious, nervous, sad or happy – in a positive or negative way –, and just reflect about something from objective lens. As a person who is always bursting with emotions (I know, I’m so Brazilian), I need that safe spot, and it’s sometimes hard to find the right place and time to open its doors. In Japan, however, this was no tough task.
I spent Christmas Eve at Koya-san, a sacred mountain where you can enjoy a monk’s lifestyle by sleeping in a temple lodge, bathing in one of the local onsens (the Japanese hot springs), and attend their morning prayer at six in the morning. It was a time for isolation, where I was far away from family and friends, surrounded by incredible Pagodas, the forest, and the cold winds of winter.
One of the attractions of the mountain is a very old cemetery where important figures of Japan’s past are buried. It’s a huge graveyard, and you can spend hours and hours just walking around and looking at the beautiful, morbid statues, and gravestones. Late afternoon, I went into the graveyard with no map and ended up finding a hidden path in the midst of the gravestones, crossing a river through a small, wooded bridge, only to emerge into a huge clearing circled by tall, ancient trees. It was a fantastic surprise, and I just sat there, mesmerised by nature itself, and made it my own temple – my safe spot to notbe for a while.
As I closed my eyes, I thought about change – about how much change this whole PULSE endeavour has brought. We all know that change isn’t easy, regardless of how prepared you are. I certainly know how difficult it was to transition from my city life and well-established job to land in a secluded village in the suburbs of the Philippines and work at a start-up organisation, where nothing is very clear and you have to navigate through unknown tides to figure things out. Quite often, I felt frustrated for having to live away from a big city, lost in the middle of nowhere, whereas all the friends I made were enjoying life in the capital of Manila. During that moment in Japan, though, on top of that hill, I allowed myself to read my experience through different eyes.
Before coming to Asia, I pictured my assignment as a time to enjoy life with renovated freedom, explore a new world, learn from the new and help others through the little support I could offer. The truth is not everything is heaven. Most of the time in Tagaytay, I missed home and my old job, and I soon started counting down the weeks to finally return to Philadelphia. A month ago, as I repeatedly complained about how bored and dissatisfied I was with Tagaytay, someone told me: “You know, as silly as it sounds, I do believe that things happen for a reason. You could’ve gone to the liveliest Asian capital, and yet this is where you are. Think about how this experience has put you over the edge, how it challenged your resilience. Home will always be there for you, but these six months will never ever come back. Take them by the horns and make the most out of it.”
I thought about all of that as a chilly breeze passed through the trees and moved the grass beneath my feet. I could hear nature going to bed, the sun setting in the distance, and the darkness of a bright winter night approaching from the West. And suddenly I allowed myself to smile – I gave myself permission to accept that yes, this was not what I expected, but I did learn from it. I internally thanked the mysterious strings of destiny for putting me through such an interesting path on my PULSE experience. I now know better about my limitations and what I can or cannot do on a long-term basis. It could’ve been an easy transition, but it wasn’t, and, at that moment, I finally made peace with how things turned out.
I don’t know whether I will ever come back to Japan – life is too short and there are too many other places to see –, but I’m so glad I went there. I’m glad I gave myself a chance to “spirit away”, to find my own temple, to dive into the state of notbeing, and to accept how emotionally difficult, but yet beautifully transforming, the last few months have been. There are only a few weeks left in Asia and a big change happened as I came back to the Philippines. I’m now working from Manila, the capital, at the headquarters of Save the Children Philippines, leading a new project for the next 4-5 weeks I have left. I will talk more about this on my next blog.
And Japan… ありがとうございます. I already miss you =)