Okay, get ready, this is a doozy.
A few weeks ago I was browsing the video games section at my local Tsutaya, which is like a Blockbuster or Bookman's for those of you in AZ. I was really pissed off at this time, because I had just a terrible experience with their customer service. Basically, I stood at this dude's desk, the trade-in desk, waiting for him to look up at me so I could sell my games back to the store. I waited there for about 10 minutes but he ignored me. I got in the regular line, told the lady I wanted to sell my games, and she pointed me back toward the trade-in desk.
Now sure I was in the right place, I walked back over the the ignorer. I put the games I wanted to sell ever so softly right on top of whatever work related manual he was reading. He finally looked up at me. I said to him, in Japanese, “I would like to sell these games” and added a few English curse words on the end. He made like a 13 year old told to clean his room and went through with the transaction.
I made my way to games section and was browsing for some 3DS games, still fuming mad from the previous “altercation”. I was debating whether it was racism, a bad employee, or if he was just having a bad day. Anyway, I was leaning toward racism and deciding whether or not I should hate everyone in Japan because of one idiot video shop employee. Yeah, it was bad.
After a few minutes, this young guy approached me. He was smiling and asking me about what games I like to play. He recommended me a few games after I told him I like puzzle games. We got to chatting about why I was in Japan, and why he was in Ichihara. It was awesome, he put up with my terrible Japanese and my faith in the friendliness of Japanese people was fully restored. Anyway, we exchanged phone numbers and decided to go a Izakaya (Japanese pub) the following weekend.
The next weekend, I was in Yokohama and I avoided his phone calls because I didn't want to cancel. He called me 8 times...okay I thought kind of strange, but maybe this dude doesn't have any friends. Or he is liberal with his phone calls. I finally called him back and told him sorry, and next weekend. Next weekend, he calls twice and I pick up finally. We decide to meet at 7:30 Saturday night.
I met him at the station, and we walked to his car. On the way, he told me he picked up his friend, too. Cool, I thought, always great to meet new people. We get to his car, and I notice that it is a really nice white Lexus, or Infiniti type Sedan. This dude told me he paints petroleum holding tanks for a living. He must be good at saving. Well, we get in and were off. This is where things get strange.
“We're going to a bento shop”, he stated
“Oh, okay, no Izakaya then?”, I ask
“No, this place is really good though”, he replies.
I've been in Japan long enough to know that nobody goes to Bento shops at 7:30 on Saturday night. Bento is basically a Japanese lunch set in a little box, usually to be taken and eaten somewhere. I keep prying about this Bento shop to get more info, but all he tells me is that this place is really special and that there are lots of young people and girls there. Alright, cool, I think, maybe this is some type of bento restaurant I've never heard of.
“Oh, and it's in Hon-Chiba, is that okay?”, he asks
At this point I'm thinking, no its not okay to drive 30 minutes for a bento on Saturday night, but I play along.
“Yeah, I'm really looking forward to this place”, I lie. So we make our way, talking about the usual stuff. Music, food, movies, normal stuff.
We arrive in Hon-Chiba, park, and get out to walk. We are close to the station and make note of it in case I need make an emergency dash for my life. I begin to size up my situation. I weigh more than both the Japanese guys combined, and of them seems to have a breathing problem so I'm not too worried about a fight. We are on main streets and there are people around. Okay no problems yet.
Finally we arrive at the “Bento shop”. It looks something like a soup kitchen for the homeless, and the food looks really good. They have curry, spaghetti, all types of rice balls, drinks, basically something for everybody. All the food is being made by people right behind the cash registers (as opposed to standard machine made bento).
We pick out some stuff, and head upstairs. I tell the guys about how this place reminds me of a YMCA. Little did I know, I was slowly unraveling the mystery myself. I was actually quite happy to find a place like that. The food was cheap, and clean. There were lots of people around of all ages, it was close to station and friendly. People were playing cards, and games together. Awesome.
Well, we eat and then as we finish, I start to wonder, what's next? What do we do after Bento on Saturday night? Go drinking? Game center? I ask my new friend and he starts to tell me this really long story about how he was lonely and depressed when he moved to Chiba. It sounds like he's told it before. I start to feel like I'm not really there for a food and libations. The other guy chimes in with a snort now and then, because of his breathing problem and adds some info. Another guy comes to our table who speaks English. He is carrying a folder. He translates some of my new friends story for me and agrees with what he says just like the snorting guy. I'm getting a little suspicious now. Finally my new friend tells about this prayer that has really given him power in his life.
“Holy shit”, I think to myself “I got lured into some psycho cult headquarters.”
They keep going on and on about how great this place is, and I just sit there and turn to stone. Actually, it reminded me of when I was in Hebrew school as a boy. On year, we went to visit all the different denominations of religions around our temple. We went to Catholic mass, the Muslim service and Baptist or Presbyterian services as well. It was really interesting for me to see how other people pray and do their thing, so I figured this was an extension of that.
These guys eventually present me with some kind of prayer beads, and little book of prayers. “Rad, some new souvenirs with a great story”, is all I can think of when he hands them to me. They ask me to come pray with them. “Sure”, I say, let's see how far the rabbit hole goes.
We enter a building next door with and nod to a security guard. It's weird whenever you enter a church, no matter what the faith, the always smell the same. This place had that smell. They sign me up and fill out a form with a fake address. In Kanji. Yeah I'm smooth like that.
We head up stairs and I hear some chanting and drum beats. I get really scared all the sudden. Are they going to rub pigs blood on me? Will they electrocute me? I had this sudden realization that while I might have been able to fight off two guys outside, I was now in the ant's nest and would certainly be overtaken. That is not the type of feeling you should have a house of worship, in my opinion.
Before we enter a room, the guy asks me if I can sit Seiza style. This is a traditional Japanese style of sitting respectfully with your legs folded underneath your ass. It is actually quite difficult, but I have been practicing. I tell him its no problem. “If I get some magical power from this prayer, why would you be worried about me sitting seiza style?”, is all I can think of as we enter the room. The room is all Tatami, or straw mat, and there is a small alter in the front of the room. The guys motion for me to sit front and center, the get the full effect of the prayer power. I abide. I look around and notice there all sorts of people in the room. Young women, old men, nerds, athletic looking types, salary-men with suits. They are all chanting this prayer rhythmically with a drum beat project from a very expensive Bose PA system. Occasionally they go down for a deep bow. We sit and wait for that prayer session to end.
After the session ends, a woman enters the room and begins to conduct a service. She enters very slowly and bows about 300 times before sitting before the alter and hitting a bell. My friend gives me some paper with the prayer written out in Romaji (the style of writing Japanese with English letters) so I can read it. Mother of god, this is going to take forever. Its like 6 pages, with repeat sections. I am in for the long haul.
We get to praying. She hits the bell, we repeat some stuff, we bow, she bows we chant loud, we whisper chant, she hits the bell some more, we are silent, we are loud. Basic prayer stuff, all the while I'm noticing my Seiza abilities were greatly over estimated. My legs begin to lock up and go numb. But, I'm trying to actually pretend like I give shit about this prayer thing so I just tough it out. After about 30 minutes everybody else leaves and there are only 5 people left. Me and my two captors, and another guy with the same folder, prayer beads, and fake friend, as me. The lady turns to us and goes on and on about lots of things I can't understand, which I am glad because I see the other newbie slump visibly and get emotional at a few things that she says. I suddenly felt terribly sorry for all the people in this place. Not just in my room, but everyone in the cult. I can see how people fall for this stuff...they have nothing in life, they are depressed and don't belong. They come to this place and feel like they are a part of something. They feel like they are doing good, and good will come to them. It was heartbreaking. It's strange how the two reactions I had to this place were fear and heartbreak; is that how cults get people to join? I sure as shit was never coming back to this place, no matter how good the bento.
That's when I happened. I felt God. I tried to stand up and my legs were utterly dead from the Seiza. All the blood rushed in all directions in my body and I nearly passed out. It was so utterly painful, yet euphoric at the same time, like removing a splinter. I couldn't walk. I did my own strange prayer dance I tried to stand, crouched, fell over, stretched my legs, finally got up and realized that Seiza, my own body, was my god, and that he could bitch slap me back to reality at anytime by cutting off circulation to my legs. Wow, standing up from Seiza was one of the most painful, pleasurable and futile things I have ever done. Try it.
After we leave, the building, I notice people standing around out side the building, doing normal people things. Talking about work, what they are doing tomorrow, their kids, whatever. They are normal people just like me. This is their hobby, this makes them happy and they are happy people. They are all weird, and in my opinion weak minded, but everyone I met was friendly, and generally wanted to help their fellow human. What a strange place.
My friends offer to drive me home. I decline and take the train. I quickly changed both of their names in my phone to CULT GUY 1 and CULT GUY 2.