The Naked Man Journal

Close Encounters of the Zen Kind
"Cruising Kyoto with a Monk in the Trunk"

text & pictures by Thomas Fast


I've been intrigued by Buddhism for a long time now, especially the lives of Buddhist monks. I'm not sure why this is. Perhaps it's because I myself come from a long line of Holy Men (preachers and missionaries), and I'm also drawn to the path of righteousness -- as long as I don't have to give up sex, marriage and children. Ironically this is the way many Japanese monks feel, although I'm not sure they would put it that way (FYI: Unlike other parts of Asia, certain sects of Japanese Buddhist monks are allowed to marry).

I think I've gotten a pretty skewed picture of monks and Buddhism over the years. It's the same for most "Westerners." For me, it must have come from watching too much of the television show Kung Fu as a kid. My brother and I liked the show but we could never figure-out: 1) How anyone could actually believe David Carradine, aka "Kwai Chang Kane," was Chinese (he was obviously white in our eyes); and 2) why cowboys always wanted to beat him up every time he asked for a drink of water! Still, I guess it made for pretty good entertainment, especially the slow motion kung fu. My brother and I would reenact all the fight scenes during the commercial breaks. (I wonder if slo-mo was the only speed David Carradine could actually do kung fu?)

Recently, I've come into contact with several real "Kwai Chang Kanes." Learning about their lifestyles and ways of thinking has been quite surprising, amusing and sometimes profound.


Rie told me that I should meet Shinohara at the entrance to the park near my house at 8:00 am that Thursday. He would pick me up in his car, along with Rie and 2 other college girls. Then we would drive together to Nara to see the famous "Mizutori" festival.

I was very intrigued to be going with a Japanese monk and 3 college girls! It just didn't seem "right" to me that a Buddhist monk -- especially a ZEN monk -- would go for a joy ride in his dad's car with 3 coeds and some foreign guy! But of course there are a lot of things about Shinohara that are not very monk-like.

I'd met him once before, in an artsy little café in Okayama. I know the hip, 30-something woman who runs the place. Her name is Kumiko. As I sat down at the bar with my ex-pro soccer playing Peruvian friend, Mario (who still does 300 sit-ups a day to stay in shape), Kumiko said to me, "Do you know Shinohara? That's him over there and these are his photographs on the wall. He's a monk." A monk?! The guy was flirting with some girls and sipping a Heineken! He looked to be in his early 30's but there was nothing about his appearance that indicated he was a Man of Zen. I could see that his head was shaved under the wool cap that he was wearing, but I'd assumed it was a fashion statement. Little did I know it was RELIGION in disguise.



I left feeling very confused. How could it be that this man was a Buddhist monk? He was in no way like the Kwai Chang Kane of Kung Fu! A few months later, I sat in the passenger seat of his dad's new sedan on our way to Nara, still in disbelief. The girls were in the back seat, listening to the salsa on the stereo. They seemed completely at ease with Shinohara's not-so-Zen lifestyle.

Over the course of our journey, I slowly pieced together Shinohara's life and how he came to be who he is. Besides being about the same age and sharing interests in photography and Latin music, Shinohara and I have another thing in common: It turns-out that he too comes from a long line of Holy Men -- Buddhist monks in his case.

Now being AMERICAN born, I am FREE to choose whether or not to follow the path of my forefathers. So far, I haven't really "heard the call" (as some of my relatives might put it) to become a Pastor for the Assembly of God Church (as many of them have). Shinohara, being Japanese, had no choice in the matter. Whether he felt the call or not, was irrelevant. His forefathers had all been Buddhist monks and he was destined to be one too. Forget about the fact that what he truly wanted was to be was an artist!

Deciding to make the best of his fate, Shinohara, spent his college years living at a well-known Zen Temple in Kyoto and attending a Buddhist University. He joined the school photography club and set up a darkroom in one of the rooms of the temple. He spent the next 10 or so years in training as a monk/photographer. He also established ties with the artistic community. Now he's back in Okayama, taking care of the temple that has been in his family for generations. So far, he seems to be able to balance his religious duties and secular passions.


"Shonohara: Cameraman/Holyman"

Once in Kyoto, the plan was for us to park the car and continue on to Nara by train, with a larger group of about 10 people. They were mostly senior citizen couples from the Kyoto area. Two men in the group had earned the title of "Living National Treasure." The Japanese Ministry of Culture likes to bestow this title on outstanding members of the Japanese Art World from time to time, especially old white-haired men who excel at a very unique and almost dead national skill. One of these men was an expert at making a certain type of metal (brass?) pot. The other was more famous but no one seemed to know what for. It seemed the only thing he was good at was ordering people around. We were led by a 60-year-old woman who owns and operates a well-known Kyoto teahouse. She was also a friend of Shinohara.

"Our Guide"

There was another monk in the group. His name was Zenchan and he was the "Ying" to Shinohara's "Yang." In every way that Shinohara broke the monk stereotype, Zenchan upheld it. The guy radiated ZEN (Hence the alias I've given him). Ironically they're best friends. Zenchan stood there in standard "monk fatigues" (think Karate uniform but indigo blue), protecting his shaved head from the February chill with only a white hand towel. He stood semi-at ease, with his hands in front of him, the left holding the right. Shinohara explained that this is because the right is more prone to evil and the left must keep it in check. On his feet, he wore a pair of very thin rubber thongs. His toes looked as though they'd known the pain of frostbite.

"Zenchan: Golden Child"

Shinohara was also sporting the indigo gi but preferred shiny New Balance running shoes over slippers. For headgear, he chose a funky, moss green hat. Slung over his shoulder was a colorful Guatemalan bag holding his camera equipment. An Austin Powers button was pinned to the bag that said, "Shagadelic." Very fitting.

Zenchan had a bag too. Rie asked what was inside. He pulled out a very plain scarf, which he never did use that day, even though it was only a few degrees above freezing. The only additional item he had was an antique pocket watch tucked in the folds of his robe. It was a nice watch, but I tried not to act too impressed, or he might try to give it to me. I got the sense that Zenchan would do just about anything for anyone, if he thought it would make the person feel better. Would Shinohara give me his camera, I wondered?



So with our group now fully assembled, we were ready to board the train and head to Nara. As is customary on Japanese trains, everyone began eating. We had each been given a bento, but the older women in the group seemed to have extra food just in case. Most of it, they gave to Zenchan, who happily ate it all. He was "just like Mikey" of the "Kellogg Special K" commercials, except he bowed a lot more. What he didn't devour directly, he tucked into the folds of his robe for later. I read somewhere that Gautama Buddha advised his disciples to accept any and all food given to them by others -- even meat so long as the animal wasn't killed specifically for them. Zenchan was following the Buddha's teaching to the letter. Shinohara told us that in the temple, miso soup and rice might be the only thing he gets to eat all day!

Once in Nara, we headed to a teahouse near Todaiji temple, where the festival would be held. The Mizutori festival takes place at night, so we still had the whole afternoon for sightseeing. First we had some green tea, prepared by the local teahouse owner. She was an elderly woman in a blue kimono with matching hair. Zenchan and Shinohara acted as waiters for the group. Afterward we went to see Nara's famous Daibutsu, or Great Buddha -- the largest Buddha in Japan, housed in the largest wooden building in the world. As we stood there and gazed on him in awe, I turned to Zenchan and said, "What do you think?" His response: "Hmmm... Very difficult to clean."

No matter where we went that day, Zenchan always seemed to find someone in need of help. He was the ultimate Eagle Scout. I saw him run after someone's hat that had blown away in the wind, and help several old women up the steps of various temples. He was tireless. Shinohara too, had his monk-like moments, but spent the majority of his time socializing and taking pictures. One may choose to judge him harshly for this, but as the elder of the 2 monks, it was to some extent his privilege. Judging from the way they interacted, a Westerner might never realize that the two were close friends. Zenchan always addressed Shinohara in highly formal Japanese, while Shinohara replied in the opposite. This too was his privilege.

"Yin & Yang"

They met and trained together in Kyoto. During that time, they endured many experiences together. For example, they once went from Kyoto to Okayama on foot! Apparently this is not an uncommon form of travel among monks. With absolutely nothing other than the robes on their backs, they started walking west! One morning, after sleeping on the side of a mountain, they awoke to find a wild cat had stolen one of Zenchan's slippers. Zenchan tried to catch the cat, but it was too fast. But after having to endure walking barefoot a whole day, the slipper was mysteriously returned! Such is the Way of a monk. The trip to Okayama took them a full week (it takes 3 hours by car), but only 55 minutes to get back -- by Shinkansen (Bullet Train).


"Teahouse Husky"

Around 5pm, we returned to the teahouse for one of the best bento meals I've had in Japan. The Living National Treasure whose skill appeared to be the art of being an old fart, barked at the college girls, ordering them to serve the others and behave like proper young women, which of course, they'd been doing all day. The old man was relentless. He resembled the angry huskies tied-up outside. He didn't shut up until his wife all of a sudden shouted, "Owari!" (trans. "enough!"). To which he meekly replied, "Hi." (trans. "Yes dear.") We were all very grateful.

Finally it was time for the festival to begin. A sizeable crowd had gathered beneath the temple, which was built on wooden beams off the side of a mountain. Shinohara and I dove in jostling for position with the other "cameramen." The girls snuck up to the front in hopes they might get showered with sparks.



At this point, I should probably give an explanation as to what this festival is all about: It is perhaps the most famous of Japan's many "fire festivals." This is rather ironic considering the term "mizutori" actually means "taking water." Every night for a selected week at the end of winter, the monks of Todaiji light a dozen or so 15 foot long bamboo stalks with pine needle bushels at the end, then run with them around outer deck (these torches are very heavy by the way), creating the illusion that the building is on fire. Masses of people gather at the bottom of the temple hoping that sparks will land on them. This is the equivalent to getting showered with good luck -- even if it does ruin your best sweater. Once all of the bamboo torches have been lit and run around the temple, people scramble to pick up any remaining charred pine needles they can find, as these too will bring good luck to the beholder.

The festival pyrotechnics were pretty impressive, but not nearly as cool as what I would see next: Just as we were gathering to go home, our teahouse guide pulled me and Zenchan to the side and said, "How would you like to see INSIDE of the temple? The monks have just begun chanting!" Apparently they did this every night during festival week from 9pm-12am. Zenchan's reply was basically the Japanese equivalent to, "BOY would I? That'd be NEAT!!" "Well you can, but we can't," said our guide, referring to the women in the group. The chanting was a men only affair -- so much for Zen and sexual equality. But Chivalry is not dead among monks. If the women couldn't view the ceremony, then Zenchan wouldn't either, although it was obvious that this really "yanked his chain" (so to speak). It was a noble gesture, but of course, everyone insisted he go. The other men folk were too old to be bothered. Shinohara gallantly volunteered to stay behind with the ladies (obviously he wasn't turned on by a bunch of moaning bald guys), so it was just me and Zenchan.

Our guide gave us one of her business cards. She said this was all we'd need to gain access to the ceremony. Apparently, she wields quite a bit of power in certain cultural circles. But it seemed odd to me that a Zen monk from Kyoto would not be able to witness a Zen ceremony in Nara without the written consent of a teashop owner! She said all we'd have to do is show the card to one of the monks at the door and we'd be in. Sure enough, when we got there, a big monk standing outside took one look at the card and nodded us through (FYI, this is a perfect example of how Japanese women really run this country. They allow men to play their little "men only" games if it will make them feel important, but the fact is women wield all the power behind the scenes).

When we entered the temple it was almost as if I'd traveled to another plane of existence. It was dark and difficult to see. The only light in the place was that emanating from ancient lanterns hung from the ceiling by chains. We quickly sat on some tatami mats facing the inner hall of the temple. An opaque, but see-through, white curtain separated us from the inner hall. It wasn't a big room, perhaps 15 x 20 feet. In the center was a large stack of rice cake offerings and candles on a table. Around the table were monks, in a trance-like state, uttering a constant, low, powerful drone. Zenchan and I were the only viewers there except for a few, perhaps privileged, old men. They sat cross-legged on the mats near us and reminded me of Indian chiefs in a Cowboy Western. Their weathered faces barely showed by the light of the fire.


After about 20 minutes, that familiar tingling sensation set in. I could no longer feel my legs. There was also another not-so-familiar sensation. It may have been the after effects of the alcohol I had to drink over dinner (I say "had" because the Living National Treasure basically forced me to drink a whole bottle of sake with him). I could feel a certain energy around my body, resonating in harmony with the chant of the monks. The 2 wooden warrior guardians in the room (representing gods of thunder and lightening) seemed to be breathing in time with me. I could almost see their wooden bellies respire. The overall effect was both energizing and intoxicating. I sat there and drank it in. Occasionally, I had to glance in the direction of Zenchan. He spent the whole time staring up at the ceiling with a big smile on his face.

After almost an hour, he turned to me and suggested we get back to the others. He felt bad about making them wait for us, but at the same time, wanted me to enjoy the ceremony as long as possible. He and I talked a little about it on our way back to the teahouse as the blood began to flow back into my legs. Apparently, Todaiji had distant links to the Buddhist Temples of Tibet, which would explain the Didjeridu effect of their voices. I tried to speak to Zenchan in Japanese, but he always replied to me in broken English. I got the impression he was doing this not for his own practice, but because he believed it was making my life easier. While this was not the case, I was still moved by his gesture.

Soon we met up with the others and were on a train back to Kyoto. Once there, we said good-bye to our gracious teahouse guide, the National Treasures and other seniors. Zenchan gave our guide the deepest and longest bow I have seen in Japan to date. And believe me, I've seen some LONG bows in my time! This bow beat them all x 3. When Zenchan finally came up for air, Shinohara offered to give him a ride back to the temple, "But of course seeing as how it's me, the girls and Tom here, we're gonna have to put you in the trunk." Zenchan: "Really?! I LOVE the trunk!"

I was pretty sure Shinohara wasn't serious, although I wasn't so sure regarding Zenchan. He didn't seem capable of anything but THE TRUTH. As we approached the car, it dawned on me that they were both for real, and this was nothing new for them. I guess I shouldn't have been too surprised. After all monks around the world do seem to exhibit some rather Sado-Masochistic tendencies at times.

As Shinohara unlocked the car, one of the girls suddenly volunteered to go in Zenchan's place!

What was she thinking?! Perhaps she felt like he'd done his share of good deeds for the day. Of course, a battle ensued to see who could out polite the other. These duals can be especially drawn-out in Japan. Under normal circumstances I'd have put my yen on Zenchan, but Shinohara put a quick end to the fight: "You wanna ride in the back? Great! Let's go!"




She had no idea what she'd gotten herself into. It was one of the wildest car rides I've ever had. Shinohara likes to play with the Buddhist belief in Fate. Screeching through the city going 3 times the speed limit, he was on a collision course for every speed bump in town. Every direct hit produced a thump and a muffled scream in the rear of the car. We weren't sure if it was a sound of pleasure, pain or terror. Shinohara threw in a CD and turned it on full blast. Of course the car speakers were in the back, so it must have been deafening in the trunk. His musical selection was a 1960's French porno music remix: A lot of bumpin', wa-wa guitars, ooing, aaahing, oolalaing and other French nasal noises. Zenchan was very impressed and asked, "Gee, whose song is this?"

At about midnight, our ride ended. Not at Zenchan's temple, but in front of Shinohara's favorite jazz club. He figured the night was still young. Our girl in the trunk was a little banged-up, but unharmed. The huge smile on her face indicated to us that she too must like to get a little kinky every now and then.

We asked if it would create any problems for Zenchan, coming back to the temple so late. Both monks smiled and said that he could be out as late as he wanted as long as he was in the company/care of an elder, i.e. Shinohara. I guess that meant that if Zenchan's mentor felt it was beneficial for him to have a night on the town, listen to some jazz and have a whiskey or too, then it must be OK! In fact, this may very well be what Zenchan needed. It was obvious the boy didn't get out a lot. Most of the night, he had a perma-grin on his face a mile wide -- almost like an escapee from a mental ward. Shinohara told us how Zenchan, in his 7 years training at the temple, ran away 3 times. But in the end, he always came back. Apparently, even Zenchan had his breaking point. Zenchan bowed his head and smiled in embarrassment while Shinohara spoke for him. "And who is to say he might not run away again! Right Zenchan? You've still got at least 3 more years!"


The jazz club was like a lot that I've seen in Japan. The owner behind the bar was living out his dream of setting up a small, hole in the wall club, where he could serve drinks and share his immense collection of rare LPs with other aficionados. He recognized Shinohara right away. We only stayed for one drink though. We still had a 3 hour drive home and some people, like myself, had to work in the morning. Of course, Zenchan had to get up around 4:30 am for his daily chores! (In case you were wondering, Shinohara stuck to water and I think Zenchan ordered a Chamomile tea).

For the ride back to the temple, it was Zenchan's turn to ride in the trunk. Shinohara became even more ferocious behind the wheel of his dad's Lexus. Zenchan loved every minute of it. His schoolgirl squealing blended with the porno music.

It had begun to snow a little by the time we got to Zenchan's temple. Outside the trunk, the snowflakes melted as they landed on his uncovered feet. He stood there shivering and grinning. It seemed like the appropriate time for him to say, "Stop on by anytime you're in Kyoto!" But I guess this isn't really an option for a monk in training. As a joke, I offered him an orange and a can of beer -- leftovers from our dinner at the teahouse. To my surprise he happily accepted them both!

It was time to say good-bye to Zenchan. As we sped off to Okayama we could still see him bowing (and probably still grinning) in the rearview mirror.



So what is my new impression of monks? I'm still not sure I know how to answer that question. It appears that men become monks for many reasons. In the process they never become anything more than human -- just like the rest of us.

Zenchan heard the call. Shinohara did not, but had no real choice in the matter. Still, both in my opinion, are probably fulfilling their religious duties. They go with their flow. One might think that Shinohara's taste for fast cars, fast music (and fast women?) may not make him much of a Holy Man, but you might say the same thing about my Uncle Lamont. He's an ordained minister who -- despite his love of Blackjack and Lonnie Anderson -- has saved many a soul. He was even voted one of George Bush's "Thousand Points of Light!"

So I'm not going to make any character judgments at this stage. I will say this though: With their giant, flaming bamboo shafts, medieval chants and French porno music, these guys sure do know how to party!





Join us in September for the
continuing adventures of Naked Man.

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