I’m climbing the Botsudai, 285 knee-high steps leading to Kuonji, the lower grounds of the most sacred site of Nichiren Buddhism. The residue of a teenage boy I’ve never quite shaken demanded I stay ahead of an elderly couple that started at the same time. I hear taiko drums.
Making the top, I find the taiko drums I had gotten excited about were really a thunderous construction project. The latest amendment to the grounds, a chic blend of ancient and modern of architecture, provides background for a 400 year old weeping cherry blossom. An announcement over a loudspeaker erupts like a gas explosion, striking me with the notion of somehow losing a race I had started too late.
Then, ignoring the chatting couple behind her much better than me, an old woman bows deeply before Nichiren’s ashes in the main shrine, peeling back a century of forward-progress. Another pilgrim stands in solitary contemplation before a side temple.
Past the temples there’s a fork in the road. One way leads to the cable car, the other to the mountain path. It’s an easy choice. I’ll be climbing today. After the first bend towards the inner mountain, the sound of hissing leaves overtakes the crowds.
Mt. Minobu is the head temple of the Nichiren Buddhism sect. Its founder, Nichiren, believed the Buddha’s Lotus Sutra was the supreme path to enlightenment–a philosophy earning him several failed execution attempts and exiles. His final exile, self-imposed after a third unheeded governmental remonstrance, was to this mountain where he consolidated his faith.
Minobu’s a leisurely hike over paved road, save the topmost trail that gets just a bit more difficult. Off the path I spot a crumbling stone walkway, which I ascend to a graveyard inseparable from a forest that has crept back over it, leaving footprints of moss. A tiny jizo sits at the foot of one stone, representing a miscarriaged child. I glance back up at the tomb and it’s unborn child, wondering about their story.
Further along there is a tiny wooden shrine, half its patriotic banner twisted and fallen. Shrines like these are often family affairs, and for it to be so neglected the last of its caretakers must have also been lain to rest in its private cemetery.
Nearby a path descends into rows of tombstones tightly packed into rank and file. Perhaps a family of priests, connected with the shrine I just left? I wonder. There are two new graves at the very end, untouched by the moss and lichen. Two lives marked, knots in the measuring line.
When I return to the road the forest lights up with howls. I freeze as a howling squad of monkeys bursts from the trees, slides over the road, then filters back in. There and gone again. I laugh nervously, feeling fortunate they were less interested in me than I was them.
There’s a rest area near a quaint temple garden. I peek inside what I mistook for a restaurant and have the bejesus scared out of me by the gardner’s territorial Shiba. I have onigiri and a sandwich for lunch at an old picnic bench. Except for a distant climber’s bear bell, it was perfectly quiet until the shriveled old gardner came out and started blasting enka on her portable radio while trimming the flowers. I’d rested enough. I make quick use of the facilities before making for the last leg of the trail.
A peaceful man is now sitting quietly at the same bench where I had just eaten. He starts the ascent just after me and I linger during a water break to let him catch up, curious about his sudden appearance.
“It’s rare to see a foreigner climbing Mt. Minobu,” he says in a calm, agreeable voice.
I laugh. “I suppose it is.”
He’s a monk from Northern Japan taking a monthly pilgrimage to Minobu. We start climbing together, and he tells me that he became a monk just after high school. After some prompting, he says that he had risen up in the ranks of his temple, one day to possibly to take over as head priest. He’s a soft spoken, humble man who neglects to mention the head priest’s son usually takes over after his father. For him to even be considered for such an honor tells me he is an exceptional monk.
We reach the summit and rest at a bench where he tells me what it means to be a Buddhist monk.
“Heaven is like a river that anyone can reach in and drink from. We just stand at the bank, offering cups.”
I watch him pray before the inner shrine. There are few people at the top, and the wooden buildings show wear from the cold, moist air.
“There is a good place to view over here,” my friend gestures, taking me to a panorama of Yamanashi. After I take my picture he invites me to dinner.
“I’d be honored.”
There are plenty of tiny restaurants and souvenir shops at the foot of the mountain. We just catch the owners of a small soba restaurant as they are closing, but they’re more than happy to open back up for our bizarre pair. I suppose that monks and foreigners don’t often have dinner together. Over hot tempura soba, he tells me how his greatest joy is counseling those in need, though the conversation inevitably turns to why I choose to live in Japan.
I spread my arms. “Because I just climbed a sacred mountain. I’m having dinner with a Buddhist monk. I got ran over by monkeys. This, here, is my life.”
My friend admits he is “a little jealous,” and we share an ironic smile at his slight breach in Buddhist etiquette.
We part ways back at the train station, where he offers me one last peaceful smile before heading back North. It’s then I remember that I had planned this trip to be the week prior, but my plans had been doused by the only rain of the week. I sit down and wait for the next train, thankful for divine intervention.
You can take a bus or train from Shinjuku to Kofu station in Yamanashi Prefecture. The bus is cheaper, around 2000-3000 yen on weekdays, and takes about two hours. The limited express train will shave off around thirty minutes from your trip, but costs around 3800 yen one way. From Kofu to Minobu station, you can pay 820 yen for the regular train and in about an hour and twenty minutes. You can also take the limited express, arrive around fifty minutes, and pay around 1,800 yen.
You’re best bet for a hotel is in Kofu city, the capital of Yamanashi. Kofu has no shortage.
Question of the Day: A rainy day created a much better trip. Have you ever had any trouble that led to bigger and better things?