Studying in Japan: My Personal Pilgrimage and Self-Reflection

– Written by Collin Derrig

I spent the second semester of my Sophomore year at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka Prefecture, Japan. That I went alone with no real connection and no peers, actually made the experience even more enriching because I was forced to branch out and not lean on the support structures, I had grown accustomed to during 20 years of life in Northeast Ohio. This lack of structure allowed me to connect with people and places that I never would have and to find a better understanding of my own fears and loves.

I arrived in Osaka via airplane in mid-January of 2019, the first few days were a whirlwind of excitement and orientation where I knew nothing and no one, however the first weekend gave way insecurity. I was lost and nervous till I started walking and watching life around me. Kids played in parks, laundry air-dried hanging from balconies, and people went to the Konbini(Convenience Store). Just as in Ohio, Japan was a place full of people simply trying to live their lives, just like me. That simple walk assuaged my fears and was the true start of a wonderful 5 months.

Walking introduced me to people from all over and by talking to them I quickly discovered group of friends from all over the world; Japan, Italy, Florida, Singapore, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, France, and even the remote exotic land of Ravenna, Ohio. Who knew I would find a friend from so close to home by traveling to the other side of the globe? My travels with my friends took us to shopping districts and vibrant urban centers, as well as densely forested mountains and gorgeous Buddhist Temples. These trips to the mountains and the monastic communities that were often centered on them helped me discover my deep fascination with Japanese religion. This worked in perfect tandem with the courses I was taking giving me both classroom and experiential learning all at the same time.

This fascination inspired me to take two solo trips centered on the Shingon Sect of Esoteric Buddhism, one of Japan’s oldest Buddhist sects. I undertook a section of the Shikoku Henro, Japan’s largest pilgrimage, a 1400-kilometer trek around to circumference of the island of Shikoku to 88 Shingon temples. I only had a few days so I visited the first 8 temples on foot and it was a wonderful trip where I was reminded once again of the wonders of people. I traveled for stretches with two different people. On the first day I walked for a while and was guided in the right direction by an elderly Japanese man, without his map I would have bee
n very lost. I spent my third day with an Irish travel writer who regaled me with tales of India and Central Asia. My other solo trip was to Mt. Koya the mountain, the center and location of the headquarters of Shingon Buddhism. The mountain is also home to one of the world’s oldest active cemeteries which has been active for over 1,100 years. The cemetery and temple complex is located in a forest of 100 foot tall cedars. It was the most fantastical feeling place I have been to in my life. I really can’t put it into words.

Coming back to America has been a mixed bag, I miss the places, people, and infrastructure of Japan, but I also love Ohio and home. I hope to go back, but I know because of that journey I gained a more nuanced appreciation for my home and for the struggle of newcomers to it. From a personal perspective I can now relate a little to feeling lost in a new place and part of the struggle people coming to America or more specifically Ohio face, but I also recognize I had an end date. I knew eventually that I would be going “home” for better or for worse. Many others don’t have that reassurance for reasons of both physical and economic security. However, I do know that my experiences, both struggles and joys, in Japan have made me a better more understanding person.

Note: Collin Derrig is Global Cleveland Research Associate , a 4th year student at John Carroll University from Cuyahoga Falls. This article discusses how study abroad in Japan shaped him and made him a better person.