I was recently asked by a friend to visit a traditional temple inn located deep in the ancient temple district of Minobu, Yamanashi, in order to help the proprietress, Junko Higuchi, attract more international guests. I went willingly as I am quite passionate about the Yamanashi area and I am also quite fond of traditional Japanese culture. I had been told that lunch would be served, but I was not expecting the elaborate meal and genuinely warm reception that I received.
The first thing to strike me as I approached the temple inn was the bird song and faint sound of monks tapping on a mokusho, a type of round wooden drum. The scent of lilies filled the air as we walked by a colourful ancient temple and cemetery near the entrance to the inn. Only later did I learn that the inn or shukubou, a traditional temple inn where devotees of the temple used to stay, belongs to the temple and cemetery complex. The temple was built more than 550 years ago and an ornate ceiling was added 200 years later as a gift by the 4th Tokugawa Shogun, Tokugawa Ietsuna (1641-1680). The temple ceiling bears a striking resemblance to the famous shrine at Nikko as the very same carpenters were responsible for its construction.
In full view of the temple inn’s garden, my wife and I sat down to a feast of at least 13 dishes. This type of meal is known as kaiseki (a traditional multi-course meal served gradually as each course is eaten). The meal was predominantly vegetarian, but fish was also served. By the last course, I felt totally overwhelmed by the volume and variety of food on offer. I was particularly fond of the homemade natto (fermented soy beans) served on a bed of crunchy, deep-fried tofu curd. The entire meal was a delight from the appetizers to the dessert.
After the meal, we strolled through the temple inn’s garden. The garden’s pond is in the shape of the kanji character for “spirit” or kokoro (心). The proprietress recommended that we look inside ourselves as a form of meditation while we viewed the garden. I assume the shape of the pond is supposed to help in this endeavor.
I know what you are thinking. You are thinking that anyone would enjoy a free meal in a peaceful setting, and you would be right. However, my experience was definitely more than that. I don’t know exactly what made my day at Shukubo Kakurinbo Inn so special. I don’t know if it was the atmosphere, the food or my conversation with the English-speaking priest, Mr. Higuchi, but I left feeling refreshed. Maybe it was Mr. Higuchi’s answer to my ridiculous question regarding the reason for tapping the wooden drum and reciting the sutras. He said, “When I do it, I find what I am looking for.” That’s a good enough answer for me.
Take the JR Tokaido Shinkansen Line to JR Shizuoka Station, change to the Limited Express Fujikawa bound for JR Minobu Station (departures at 8:17, 9:41, 11:41, 13:39, 15:40, 17:40, 19:40). You can also access Minobu from JR Shinjuku Station in 3 hours by taking an express train to JR Kofu Station on the JR Chuo Line. Once you arrive in Kofu, you will change to the JR Minobu Line for JR Minobu Station. Take a taxi or a bus from the train station to Minobusan (Kuon-ji Temple). The taxi is about 2,000 yen, but the bus is only about 280 yen. Alternatively, you can access Minobu by bus from Shinjuku Expressway Bus Terminal (3.5 hours).