The first time my husband, Michael, and I went to Japan, we tried to learn as much Japanese as possible. Ultimately we only mastered “yes” (hai), “no” (ie), and “hello” (konnichiwa), but I remained confident that our capable grasp of three words would endear us to a nation.
I was very excited to arrive in Nara, which is famous for Todai-ji, an enormous Buddhist temple completed in the 8th century. Todai-ji opened at 7 a.m., so I set my alarm for 6 the morning after we arrived. Michael opted to skip the temple in favor of the hotel’s breakfast buffet, which didn’t open until 7:30. “I’m just worried I’ll get dizzy if I don’t eat. Are you OK to go alone?” my husband, a grown man, asked me. “I’ll be fine,” I told him.
I was the only person at the gates when they opened. In the main hall, I marveled at the architecture and the enormous statue of Buddha; it’s 49 feet tall and weighs 551 tons. “Big,” I murmured to myself.
Also housed in the main hall is “Buddha’s Nostril,” a small, square hole in the base of one of the temple’s wooden pillars. This hole is rumored to be the same size as the nostril in the nose of the great Buddha statue sitting nearby. I’m not sure why it’s just a rumor; it seems like a straightforward measurement to confirm. Anyway, if you can squeeze through the hole, legend has it you’ll be granted enlightenment in your next life. I knew if I didn’t at least attempt to fit through this hole, my visit would have been in vain.
There were only two other visitors in the main hall, in addition to two security guards at the entrance. I took off my shoes and entered the hole. I wasn’t sure whether to stretch my arms out in front of me, like I was attempting a dive, or to leave them at my sides, like a penguin. So I did one of each. This was probably the stupidest body position I could have chosen. I didn’t have enough strength in my right arm to pull myself forward, and my left arm served no purpose but as an obstacle. My head was about halfway through the hole, my forward arm grasping for the outside world, when it occurred to me that I was not going to get any farther.
My heart fluttered as I realized the other two tourists would soon round the corner and see me. This shame scared me more than the idea of being permanently stuck in the hole. There is no greater punishment than shame, I recalled (from either an old Buddhist text or something my high school indoor soccer coach once said).
I coughed loudly, trying to catch the attention of the guards. Nothing. “Hai!” I called out. “Konnichiwa!” I cursed myself for not learning “I need help” or, even better, “Please pull me out of this nostril.”
If I didn’t at least attempt to fit through this hole, my visit would have been in vain.
I closed my eyes and thought of Bar Method, a core-strengthening class that I used to take. If ever there was a time to use that core, it was now. “Embrace the shake,” I said out loud, to no one. That’s something Bar Method instructors say when your body begins to tremble with fatigue. “Sweat is your fat crying,” I whispered to the wood.
I began to embrace the shake—or, more specifically, I began to scoot backward out of the hole. This required an enormous amount of strength, a strength that caused me to pass a loud rush of gas. My dress scrunched up over my waist, exposing my Hot Bottoms pink briefs, which have somehow stayed with me since a Boots pharmacy purchase in 2002. Barefoot and tooting, I exited the hole the same way I had entered the world some 35 years ago. What goes around comes around, I thought, straightening my Hot Bottoms. The couple had reached the pillar at that point, and I waved. “Nice day for a crawl!”
When I got back to the hotel, I described my morning to Michael in vague terms, mentioning the hole and something about future lives. I didn’t want him to know the humiliation I had suffered in the nostril.
Michael handed me a carrot ginger muffin that he had smuggled back from the buffet and smiled. “You should be excited for your next life!” he exclaimed.
I smiled back. “I’m excited for this life,” is what I should have said. “This muffin tastes like fish,” is what I actually said.
Ellie Kemper stars in the final season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which is currently streaming on Netflix. Her collection of essays, My Squirrel Days, is out now.