We did everything that we’re not supposed to do at Zenkoji temple

Posted by in Mike's blog

We’ve lived in Japan for over 2 years.  There is a lot that we don’t know…but we know enough to look back on our most recent temple visit and realise that we totally botched the “respectful tourist” thing that we’re supposed to do.

After a long day of driving and sightseeing we popped into Zenkoji temple in Nagano city to show Bubbe (the Bunny’s grandmother) what a Japanese temple looks like.  We made some mistakes while we were there.  Thankfully it was late and not too many people witnessed us making these gross errors of cultural awareness…but a few did.  If those people make their way here:  We’re sorry.

Here are the rules we broke:

No shoes on tatami flooring!

This is the simplest and most obvious mistake we could have made.  The Bunny was looking around, and she stepped onto some tatami mats in the main temple building.  She knows better, and we know better than to let her forget.  Tatami mats are made of straw and they are a pain to clean…so they are never, ever supposed to come into contact with shoes.  This is rule #1 in every etiquette guide.

Breastfeeding in public

When is the best time to feed?  All the time!  Where is the best place?  Everywhere!  These are 100% true statements and it’s Mary’s right as a mother to feed the baby wherever and whenever she desires.  On the other hand, experience tells us that some places are better than others.  The baby was hungry and it was cold outside.  Mary looked for a place to sit down and feed that was kind of out of the way.  We found a bench.  After a couple of minutes, people started coming to the bench to pray…

Upon further inspection, she was feeding the baby in front of an altar in the middle of the temple.  It was still off to the side, but it turned out to be an important side.  She didn’t have a cover.

Interrupting prayers

The Bunny probably learned how to do this at church, where we didn’t discourage her from it nearly enough.  She walked up to people while they were clearly praying and tried to start conversations with them.  Whispering wasn’t an option at the time for some reason.

Sneaking into back rooms

While Mary was feeding and I was Bunnying, Bubbe decided to have a look around.  There is no form of Japanese she can read, so she wandered freely until she got busted by a cleaning lady in the closed/possibly holy area of the temple.  She said the lady gave her a strict “だめ!” (DON’T!  BAD!) and escorted her out.

No photos

I found a no cameras sign, so I was reluctant to take photos inside the building.  Bubbe and I had a discussion, and it looked like the sign was clearly indicating that no pictures should be taken of the big shiny golden area in the back, but the other parts of the building should be fine.  I snapped a few shots (while covering the speaker in my phone to avoid the loud shutter noise that can’t be turned off) before I found another no cameras sign at the entrance.  Nuts.  Here’s what I got on the outside where photos are permissible:

Also, no cell phones

There was also a no cell phones sign, directly below the no cameras sign.  I noticed it after I glanced up from my phone.

Shouting is a bad idea

Meanwhile, the Bunny had grown tired of waiting for her brother to finish his meal and began to shout “LET’S GO! LET’S GO” as loud as possible.  This ties in with the interrupting prayers problem above.

Overstaying our welcome

We weren’t sure about the temple’s hours. We come in from a side entrance and the website translated to “open all day”.  Nobody asked us to leave (aside from when Bubbe was asked to leave the back rooms), but we did notice the big giant doors closing behind us when we were 25m away.

This post has somewhat of a comical tone, but there’s some seriousness to what I’m writing in jest.  Temples aren’t museums.  Most of the things above probably aren’t a good idea in museums either, but most museum visitors go for different reasons than temple visitors.  Temples are tourist attractions – they are also places of worship.  Even though we don’t worship the same way temple-goers do, it isn’t right for us be disrespectful and it’s important for us to be aware of our surroundings.