There are times in life when you need a monk. That’s when you head out to Yamanashi Prefecture and climb up the sacred Mount Shichimen — to find Keishin-in Temple and get a Buddhist perspective on all things human, including love.
My friend Dale just broke up with his girlfriend, a great woman who was in fact was his soulmate. Dale is torn: At age 38, he is looking for the right woman, and he wonders if his quest for perfection — think Scarlett Johansson with a Ph.D in English literature — may be unrealistic and keep him from commitment.
“She was extremely subtle, curve-wise,” Dale describes his abandoned love, blaming a lack of carnal chemistry for the split. It may sound shallow, but there is practical honesty in his approach. The more we get what we want in a partner, he holds, the more likely we are to be happy (and, conversely, the less likely to cheat). To some extent, then, the responsible thing is to be selfish when choosing a mate.
“But don’t they say that to be happy, we must accept imperfection?” A former amorous trainwreck myself, I have no advice besides bromides.
“But isn’t it the lack of chemistry,” counters Dale, “that so many people just can’t get over? That leave us bitter for the rest of our lives?”
Clearly, we need to talk to a monk. Get enlightened by a mountain ascetic on how much compromise is healthy for a marriage.
We call Keishin-in Temple to check monk availability, and to our surprise get a ready invitation. A night at the temple includes dinner, breakfast and a blessing; we can attend the evening prayer, sit down with a monk for an interview, and then watch the mountain sunrise with a backdrop of Mount Fuji, about 30 km to the east. The deal is closed for a mere ¥10,400 for two people.
“You are foreigners who want to ask a monk about love?” the temple receptionist wonders on the telephone.
I assure him that we are truth-seekers, who come in a spirit of philosophical inquiry.
“I see,” says the man, after a pause.
On a scorching hot Saturday afternoon, Dale and I board a bullet train to Kofu, where we transfer to a rumbling local. Night has fallen when we arrive at Shimobe Onsen, which is as cosmopolitan as its hot-spring name suggests.
A van waiting at the station spirits us to a Japanese-style inn, placed picturesquely with a murmuring creek out back. The inn’s 1960s interior decor, complete with fusty tatami rooms and spotty felt carpet in the halls, is complemented by the quirky host, a lady who greets us as though we were friendly Martians.
After a dinner of Sapporo beer, we go down for a night soak in the onsen, a sulfurous chamber with boiling water and paint chipping from ancient tiles. As we sneak back through the dark empty halls, I half expect to be brushed by a spook, perhaps a lady ghost haunting the premise.
The next morning, Dale and I set out for the climb. A bus and taxi take us to Hagoromo, a mountain hamlet where the pilgrimage starts. For hundreds of years, Buddhist pilgrims have gone up the same trail here, to worship and hope for rebirth in the new light of dawn.
Mount Shichimen stands at 1,900 meters, which in summer can make for a grueling ascent. An hour into the steep climb, the sun sizzling down from the meridian, the air so humid that you could wring it, we have turned into sweat machines, despite the shade of the tall cypress trees. It is Sunday, yet we mostly have the path to ourselves, save for the occasional oncoming pilgrim sashaying down from the temple — perhaps with his soul reborn?
Around 5 p.m., about 250 meters before the summit, we see the wooden gate and the path leading up to the temple grounds. With a sense of awe we enter through the hallowed gate, feeling slightly like worldly intruders.
The Nichiren Shonin, a Buddhist sect founded by a Japanese monk in the 13th century, first arrived on Mount Shichimen in 1274. It’s easy to see why the plateau became a place of worship: The Keishin-in Temple grounds are wholly enchanting. The main building is more than 300 years old, though it now has telephone and electricity. There are dormitories that can hold sizable crowds of pilgrims, who share 10-meter blankets sleeping next to each other on bedrolls. Perfecting the magical setting is a placid pond surrounded by trees, whose shimmering green depths are said to house a mythical dragon.
We are greeted with curiosity by a monk named Genga, a warm man from Tottori Prefecture with a beautiful open face. He has spent most of his life in temples and has been at Keishin-in for two years, preferring it over other temples because of its natural seclusion.
After a dip in the communal bath, we are shown to our private room and served a plain vegetarian dinner with sake, which our exhaustion promotes into a lavish meal. Then Genga takes us to the main hall for the evening prayer, a group of 15 monks chanting spirited sutras for an hour.
The evening ends with a talk with Genga, who offers interesting peeks into life at a Buddhist temple. It turns out the monks follow current events, at times discussing, even arguing, about politics. Genga allows that, for him, the hardest part of ascetic abnegation is having to forsake eating meat, and that he is vexed by the Japanese stereotype that all Buddhist monks swim in cash (he himself doesn’t).
Just when we broach the theme of relationships, our guide seems vaguely perplexed. Genga is 37 years old and married; but to a man devoting his life to a simple spiritual pureness, our warped Western minds and romantic dilemmas may seem strange.
“Every relationship needs patience and communication,” Genga comments on our quest for perfection. When he sees our somewhat disappointed faces, he adds helpfully, “We all have our problems.”
Transcendence arrives in the form of the sunrise. We get up at 4 a.m. and Genga leads us up a series of steps surrounded by dark trees, toward an ominous drone from the plateau. As we pass through another gate, we are overcome by the glory of nature — a breathtaking view of a mountain terrace overlooking Harukigawa Valley.
The panorama is matched by the surreal sight of about 300 girls, seemingly from out of nowhere and dressed in the same white yukata (summer kimono) and shoes, who greet the sunrise with the sustained deep-voiced chant “Nam-myoho-renge-hyo.” According to Nichiren mythology, the phrase captures the workings of life in the universe and is the direct path to enlightenment.
To the cult-like, crescendoing drone of the girls, the first ray of sun shines forth to the left of Mount Fuji, contoured against the purple sky. The spell slowly subsides; the girls disperse in the brand new day.
Dale and I look at each other — happy to be alive and sustained by the sun, happy to be here in this place, in Japan.
Getting there: From Tokyo, take the Azusa 27 shinkansen from Shinjuku Station to Kofu Station (¥4,000), then JR Minobu Line to Shimobe Onsen (¥700). From there, take a local bus to Shichimenzan-tozanguchi and a taxi to Hagomoro. On Sept. 18 and 19, a group of pilgrims will go up Mount Shichimen, for a ceremony at Keishin-in Temple. To join, call 0556-45-2551 or go to kuonji.jp (Japanese only).
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.