In the summer of 2016, not long after I started my new adventure working for the Cambridge Innovation Center, I headed off to Japan with my colleagues Tim (Founder and CEO) and Makiko for two weeks in Tokyo, with the intention of expanding our work there.
I arrived in Tokyo on July 30th. Tokyo is fabulous. I loved it, truly, even though Tokyo is the world’s largest megacity with a population of 38.8 million people. I kept thinking about Sofia Coppola’s film Lost in Translation.
After a week in Tokyo, I was ready for something completely different. I felt a bit overwhelmed, unsettled and a bit closed in. I needed to set off somewhere for a few days that would help to ground me, give me the space I craved, and to experience something new.
I decided I would head to Kyoto, taking Shinkansen, the fast train. I would stay at a Buddhist temple for the weekend and take a Zen meditation class. I was nervous, truly nervous, but often fling myself head first into whatever is in front of me, not letting my trepidation hold me back. Emotions are complicated.
I was hopeful that with the Buddhist meditation class I would somehow journey inside, find quiet and my inner voice, maybe even something ancient and holy within me.
Upon arriving outside Kyoto I noticed that it was Quiet. So much quiet… peacefulness. Beauty. Bliss. The opposite of the hustling traffic and people of Tokyo. Even though the website had warned to not use google maps for the 10 minute walk to the temple, I did.
As I wound my way through tiny crooked streets, smaller alleys and a miniature walkway through a backyard, I realized I was trailing another woman following the same, odd, circuitous route. I thought, surely she was headed to the temple too, and clearly followed directions as well as I do. We smiled at each other and confirmed we were on the same path.
As it turns out, Liz had the same idea to spend a weekend in Kyoto at the temple and take the meditation class. Liz (an American) had been living in Tokyo with her husband, who is in the military, for a year and a half.
Google maps took us to a location that was confusing and guided us to a door. Everything was so quiet, we stared at the door, the door stared back at us … it was locked and had no signage.
After a few minutes, a monk came out. Excitedly we let him know we were here for the weekend and class. He didn’t seem to understand. After some confusion and back and forth, he helped us understand, with hand signals and limited words exchanged, we’d come to the wrong temple, but as luck would have it we were not far off. We were in a big temple complex.
We checked in and were assigned our rooms. I decided to venture out to a restaurant called the Wonder Cafe for dinner. I saw Liz on the road and asked her if she wanted to join me. She declined, she was running off to catch a bus to an outside market 40 minutes away, even further into the countryside. How brave, I thought.
The next morning, I was up early and ready for the meditation class. We lined up sitting, facing the garden.
The monk first taught us about mediation and the importance of meditating every day for at least 5 minutes. He said the only thing that is unchanging is change itself. Impermanence, everything changes. We must embrace that and not dwell on the past or fret about what could happen in the future. The outside world cannot impact our happiness. Focus, breath and let change happen. We must quiet our minds, stay positive and focus on our breathing. This helps with metacognition, which also helps with our emotional intelligence.
After the meditation class we had thick matcha green tea and biscuits as a way of prolonging our calm spiritual meditation.
After the tea ceremony and class, Liz and I reconnected, as that morning we had decided we would leave the compound to explore Kyoto for the rest of the day. Liz said she had met Natasja, another traveler from Denmark, after class and she would be joining us.
As I often do, I had played out in my mind exactly how the weekend would unfold. I pictured mediation, and a calmness and quietness enveloping me. I got that from the class that morning for sure; however, the unexpected surprise was in venturing out with two new friends to uncover what secrets Kyoto had for us. Three women came together from different walks of life and different corners of the world. We became fast friends.
The day and ensuing fun unfolded in different ways. We ate green tea ice cream, had an amazing lunch, hiked up a mountain, visited with monkeys, walked through a bamboo forest and ended the day at a tiny little restaurant and met new friends there as well. We shared so many laughs, talked about our lives, who we are, where we came from, and about our hopes and dreams.
All this packed into a day.
We enjoyed each other so much that we decided to meet in Tokyo the following week for more fun, which included a sushi conveyor belt restaurant and visit to a karaoke bar. My journey to Kyoto, and within, led me back to Tokyo with fresh eyes and perspective. In Kyoto I learned to open myself up to those around me more freely, to move past nerves of the unknown, and to live in the present.