Photo/IllutrationParticipants in a temple tour look around a cemetery with Naho Sakai, the chief priest of Kooji temple, in Misato, Saitama Prefecture, on Dec. 14. (Kazuki Ogasawara)

  • Photo/Illustraion

Two foreigners visited a temple and asked the usual questions to a priest: "Do ghosts hang out in Japanese cemeteries?" and "Is there a difference between afterlife and reincarnation?"

The 26-year-old American woman and 33-year-old Australian man were among 28 foreigners participating in a project in which visitors chat with Naho Sakai, 41, the chief priest of Kooji temple in Misato, Saitama Prefecture.

The event has been held 12 times in total since autumn 2016.

In mid-December 2017, a small tour group accompanied Sakai to a supermarket to buy lunch boxes, “ohagi” (sweet rice balls) and tea. They then created lucky charms and chatted with Sakai’s daughter who had returned from school.

They were impressed to find out that Sakai has a family and enjoys a regular life as they had assumed the high priests of Japanese temples were monks. Their eyes twinkled with interest as this was the first time for them to visit a temple in Japan.

The event was originally projected, as a tour for foreigners, by Tokyo-based Gaiax Co., which matches tourists wanting to do certain things to certain event organizers.

The project was realized because Sakai wanted people from overseas to know how she lived her life.

Sakai accepts from two to six visitors at each event and spends around three hours with them.

“What tourists seek vary a lot, and each of them is in a niche field,” a Gaiax official said. “Experience-style tours of small groups draw attention instead of package tours that guide visitors to sightseeing spots.”

The Australian tourist told the reporter that he does not like regular tours because there are too many people in a group. He said this new style of tour was better as he can relax and ask more questions.

The American woman said she had booked the tour as she wanted to learn more about Japanese culture and had found it through Facebook.

“(Foreigners) ask questions about views of life and death without hesitation as their culture is different from ours,” said Sakai. “Now, I want to convey traditional Japanese culture to much more people.”

The priest of the Buddhist temple of the Nichiren Shu sect tries to tailor the services she provides according to guests’ preferences. For example, she shows Buddhist objects that make sounds to those who are interested in music and talks about diet with vegans.

The tour includes lunch and an interpretation service with the fee at 12,000 yen ($110) per person and is available for visitors who make reservations in advance through the website “Wow! Japan Experience+.”

Meanwhile, at Taiyoji temple in Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture, four Australians who came from Brisbane were copying “Hannyashingyo” (the Heart Sutra) along with three Japanese people in early December.

They were staying in the "shukubo" inn where there is no cellphone reception so they could shift their eyes from the gadget and instead focus on “meditation.”

“I can calm myself down as here is far from Tokyo and Kyoto,” said Travis Hendrix, 40, who heard there were few people involved on the Internet and decided to drop in to the shukubo on his way in a rental car from Sapporo to Tokyo. He stayed two nights during his vacation.

He commended the scenery and houses in Saitama, which he did not know before, and told the reporter that they were better than he expected.

“The purpose of the tour is to empty my mind through meditation,” said a 43-year-old Buddhist who is Hendrix’s girlfriend.

At night they practiced “zazen” sitting meditation with their hands crossed before the navel and with their eyes closed in the “zazen-do” hall for around 30 minutes followed by reciting the sutras in front of the Buddhist statue in the main hall and having a vegetarian dinner of stewed mushrooms and boiled daikon radish with miso paste.

“The number of foreign visitors started to grow a few years ago,” said Sotatsu Asami, 54, the chief priest of the Rinzai Shu-sect temple, one of the Zen Buddhist sects. “Currently, 40 percent of visitors are foreigners.”

This has a lot to do with an English version of the website that was created by someone from Luxembourg who came here five years ago.

“Here is not that close and not that far from Tokyo, and (the temple is) surrounded by great nature,” Asami added. “Mentally, the space seems thousands of kilometers away (from Tokyo), which should be the charm.”

The service of Buddhist practices and accommodations at the shukubo, including two meals, is priced at 9,000 yen per night, and a reservation in advance is required.