No Quidditch in the Skies Over Our Sacred Shrine – You’re Here to Volunteer!
Despite the “No Quidditch” rule, the temptation to fly around on a vintage Nimbus was just irresistible. Zipping through the fresh November air, working through a series of Quidditch manoeuvers was intoxicating!
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- Not long after we’d moved to Japan, I was visited by some official-looking men in black
- The Japanese “houki” looks so much like the flying broomsticks in the Harry Potter stories
- Doing something to help someone else changed my focus from inward to looking beyond myself
Isn’t being forced or guilted into volunteering opposite to the essence of volunteerism?
True enough. However, despite the “No Quidditch” rule, the temptation to fly around on a vintage Nimbus was just irresistible. The magic of zipping through the fresh November air, working through a series of Quidditch manoeuvers was intoxicating!
Alright then – there wasn’t any actual flying through the air, but the imagination of it was sublime. I may or may not have briefly mounted the vintage Nimbus during my imaginings. I’m not admitting to anything!
If you have absolutely no idea about what I have written to this point, then you are either still too young, or were never interested in the Harry Potter stories.
Let me take a few steps back to put you in the picture. At the time of writing, we are living and working in Japan. It is November 2022. A little chilly, but clear and sunny. Autumn – the time of year when you see the most vibrant colours as the leaves change and / or fall away. It really is magnificent.
Japan’s much talked-about ageing population is exemplified around where we live, just outside Tokyo. It is not unusual to see groups of middle-aged to elderly men and women pulling weeds along the side of the street, tidying common areas and so on.
We were welcomed into the cluster of homes where ours is situated and everyone is very friendly. People say hello and stop for a chat. It’s nice. Then there’s the weekly “community news” folder that is left in our letter box. Very helpful. That is inevitably followed by a small notebook that needs to be signed after we have completed our turn of tidying and washing down the local rubbish pick-up point.
Initially, I objected to having to wake up at the crack of dawn on a Saturday or Sunday morning to go pull weeds by the side of the street. “This is the reason I pay taxes! It is the City’s responsibility. I’ll come up with some excuse as to why I am unable to participate.”
My internal monologue continued on with various justifications as to why I would be far too busy working to be able to join their chain gang. There was the constant business travel and a plethora of work commitments, various medical ailments…
As it’s turned out, I have – so far – managed to avoid being asked to help weed the street edges. However, things were about get a whole lot more real.
Almost three years ago, not long after we’d moved here, I was visited by some official-looking men in black. I had to decide on the fly whether or not I was able to speak Japanese fluently or not at all. Don’t tell anyone I said so, but sometimes it is beneficial not to speak the language. The two gentlemen, it turns out, were from the local shrine committee – who were seeking my participation as a volunteer. I was very reticent and, as they were speaking, my mind went into overdrive, thinking of ways to avoid this impending involuntary conscription to a cabal I wanted nothing to do with.
“Gentlemen, I really am very sorry. My work commitments, business travel… Oh! and I’m from the Christian tradition, so…”
My personal beliefs were apparently quite acceptable to the god that inhabits our neighbourhood shrine. “All-comers are most welcome!” As for my work schedule, there was “not really much to do, apart from attending a few meetings”, and to appear with my epic beard at a few events organised by the shrine committee. I was ensnared.
To protest any further would have made me come across as extremely rude. I wondered how long I would be required to participate in this drain on my personal time?
“You will take your place on the committee for a period of two years. But don’t worry, you don’t start your term for another two years yet.”
Wow, these guys are organised. I was to take over from my currently serving next door neighbour when he completed his term on the committee in two years time. My two-year stint began this month, November 2020, and I can tell you that there is far more to this caper than originally advertised!
The first event on the calendar: The New Harvest Festival. In preparation for the ceremony the committee had the onerous task of sweeping up, collecting and dumping the massive blanket of leaves that covered the grounds around the shrine. One of the more “senior” committee members was given the privilege of using the blower vac. The rest of us were directed to select from a row of what I immediately identified as vintage Nimbuses.
The Japanese houki (broom) looks so much like the flying broomsticks featured in the Harry Potter stories that I just could not restrain myself from unleashing the Aussie larrikin in me. I was immediately fascinated and spared no time in mucking around with it in every possible way. That’s right. Exactly as you might be imagining right now!
I was soon brought back down to earth, however, as the enormity of the task dawned on me. The grounds around the shrine were vast, and this was the first sweep-up of leaves for this year’s Autumn season. Thankfully the wind remained mostly calm, although there were a few gusts strong enough to undo some of the work that had been done.
Although other volunteers were working around me, I appreciated the opportunity to get into my own zone, to get my sweeping into some sort of rhythm and to meditate on what I was doing. I did build up a sweat as I tried to get ahead of potential gusts of wind that might destroy the evenly sized mounds of leaves awaiting pick-up and disposal.
I got to thinking about what I was actually doing – volunteering. Working with others towards the common goal of preparing the shrine precinct for visitors. This particular day in November was a dress rehearsal for New Years Eve when more than 800 local residents will visit the shrine to see in the new year. Making the place look presentable was a worthy goal.
The job took us a few hours. During a morning tea break about half way through, I asked some of the others if it was quite normal to volunteer as we were doing. There was a short period of teeth-sucking (common in Japan when someone is put on the spot or not keen to answer a question), head-scratching, and gazing at shoes and skywards.
It turns out most of the volunteers were doing so out of a sense of duty (read “peer pressure”) more than any sense of commitment to the shrine. There was a general attitude of “doing what was expected when your turn comes around”, so to say. I was looking for a slightly more glass is half full response rather than one of being dragged, kicking and screaming over the line. The best answer came from the man in image above, who can just be seen in the upper right wheeling a barrow full of leaves away. He is almost 80 years of age, but he looked to me to be closer to 60.
“If everyone in the area takes a turn to do their bit, you only have to do this once every 15 years or so. This is my third and last time.”
He went on to explain that participating in the activities of the committee – tidying, organising various festival events etc. was all worth it when you see the reactions of the people who attend.
“I don’t do this for me. I do this for everyone who lives around this area.”
And there is was! I had my reason for slaving away early on this Saturday morning. It was a simple but worthy activity – the menial, time-consuming task of sweeping leaves – millions of them – with an ineffective, non-flying Japanese houki.
They were to be swept into small mounds that would eventually be dumped onto one huge mound somewhere around the back of the shrine precinct that was off-limits to visitors.
The thought initially took me back to my childhood in Perth, Australia, and the times I hated being told to rake the leaves in the garden at front of our house. We lived in one of the older suburbs. I believe real estate agents like to describe them as “leafy”. Giant trees. Fun for climbing, but not fun to rake up and dispose of their leaves for 50 cents pocket money every Saturday morning!
Sorry, I have digressed. In my teens and in adulthood, I came to see an opportunity to help someone when they needed it as the right thing to do – an Aussie thing to do. Doing something to help someone else was character-building. It changed my focus from being inward-looking to looking beyond myself. As I would discover, that came with its own professional benefits very early in my career. I’ll leave that for a future blog post about the benefits of volunteering.
For now, I will say the final results from our toil at the local shrine was well worth it. On this clear, sunny November Saturday, I surveyed the grounds we had cleared from leaves. The colour and beauty of where I stood was impressive!
Oh, and it turns out what I’d heard from some of my expatriate acquaintances, about the added side-benefits of volunteering to join the local shrine committee, was true: Free beer – and Sushi – and lot’s of beer!
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