Light strobes through the partitions of the rice paper shutters. It’s a Baltic cold morning with my breath visible as I lie warm wrapped in my duvet.
The stiff Tatami mats I have slept on overnight have tied knots into my spine and I reluctantly rise into the cold of the room, stretching to loosen my weary limbs. Shuffling forwards the first thing I do is to turn on the gas heater over in the corner which kicks into life with the ‘tick, tick, tick’ of the ignition and the blue, warm flames whirl into life. Still wrapped in my duvet I shuffle across the mats and open the partition to reveal the deep blue skies above. The tiled roof of the temple I am staying in is cloaked with a thin veil of frost, sparkling in the morning light.
I am walking a section of the ancient Nakasendo trail, once crowded with samurai, pilgrims and travellers and now a peaceful route dotted with old post towns through the Japanese Alps. It is 6 am and I have forced myself out of my warm cocoon to rise early in time for a Buddhist ceremony. As I get ready, I don my issued Yukata – a synthetic kimono-esque gown – and squeeze on my tiny slippers which barely fit my size 11 feet, a daily theme throughout my trip in Japan. Walking along the lacquered wooden floors I flip-flap my way to the bathroom, stopping to look at the temple’s very typical interior garden. As I stand there I find myself mesmerised watching the bamboo Shishi Odoshi slowly fill with water, emptying its contents into a stone bowl below with a thud.
I spot a pair of slippers neatly left outside a room and see that as a sign of where I am meant to be. I slide the partition open and peer inside to see two others already kneeling with eyes closed and hands clasped. I shuffle in alongside them and take my place, mirroring exactly what they are doing. I feel completely out of place.
The priests soon come in with lit candles in their hands, dressed delicately in pastel-coloured robes and bow to us before resting in lotus positions. The ceremony begins as I watch on wondering, with mystical chanting and the constant dong of tingsha bells. Before too long the blood supply in my legs begins to cease as I shuffle like a geriatric and settle myself in a part-crossed leg position. I look on as the ante of the ceremony rises higher, the flames from a cauldron burst in that dimly lit room as incense and oil is sprinkled on to the fire. Onwards still, I wonder.