"I was born in Showa 8 (1933), the same year as Emperor Akihito," the head priest of Kairyuji temple tells me. "I have two mothers. My birth mother died when I was 6 years old. My father, a Buddhist priest, remarried and they had three children: one boy and two girls. One girl died young. My younger brother became a banker and lived in London for a long time. He's now retired, living near Tokyo. My younger sister also lives in Tokyo. That left me to inherit the temple."

We're sitting in an improbable English garden located at a Buddhist temple on Shiraishi, an island of 463 people in the Seto Inland Sea. It's a fine spring day, but when a mosquito buzzes past my face I am careful not to murder it in front of the Buddhist priest sitting across the table from me. His wife is off the island today at ikebana class and we're currently just passing the time in this little cove of serenity, fenced in from the Buddhist world outside.

In truth, we've been friends for more than 20 years, so we are very comfortable talking to each other. Although most formalities between us were tossed out the window long ago, I still wouldn't go so far as to kill an insect in front of him.