Yurihonjo – Sakata
The hot spring waters had helped numb my aching limb, and the good night’s sleep aided my mind in preparation for another battle with Route 7. Today, as I progressed into Yamagata Prefecture, I would only have to join the Bastard Route in fits and spurts. For the most part, I’d be hugging the coast as I weaved my way through a number of tightly packed seashell-clustered roads. Boats were docking and unloading their cargo into a ramshackle collection of processing plants alongside the water’s edge. The omnipresent stench of fish lingered in the air as the restless, prying eyes of a flock of seagulls watched curiously from the mast of a half-sunken fishing vessel. Out to sea the skies were clear and promising, yet inland, to the east, the horizon hogging Mt. Chokai towered up into a heavyset blanket of gloom.
I braced myself.
The weather however somehow managed to hold out for me, the only main tragedy was not breaking my 40mph DWR. Hurtling downhill at 39.4mph it felt like it would come with ease, until a bumblebee decided to fly directly into my wide open eyeball. I swerved upon the impact of what felt like a punch from a welterweight but somehow managed to recapture control of my rig before bringing it to a halt. I looked around for the culprit with my one good eye. He/she was long gone, laughing his/her arse off in a hedgerow with a free-loading aphid no doubt. My watery eye would go on to wince for the remainder of the day. I’d learned my lesson: don’t fuck with Nature.
Drawing into Sakata, the ominous layers of cloud surrounding Mt. Chokai seemed to peel away as a dazzling blue sky conquered. It was here in Sakata – the conservative agricultural and commercial fishing city – where I would undergo a small sub-quest within my journey. Through the sordid underbelly of the Internet, I’d unravelled something wholesomely curious about Yamagata Prefecture. It was here that the Buddhist sect of Shingon once practiced one of the most extreme forms of enlightenment known to man. Very few Japanese I spoke to about the subject seemed to be aware of the local Yamagatan tradition of self-mummification, i.e. Sokushinbutsu.
This practice took place between the 11th and 19th Centuries, and is currently outlawed in Japan and in the Buddhist community, as a whole. During its time, it only wielded some 24 sketchily known examples, but was believed that to achieve full enlightenment and to become a Living Buddha, one must punish the body to replenish the soul of its sins. The process however was no easy feat and it was said to take some 10 years to fully achieve.
The first stages were spent eating an extreme diet of nuts, seeds, roots, tree bark and arsenic laced water! You’d also need to live inside a small box with a solitary air tube. The monk’s body would be hunched into the lotus position; the small doses of poison being taken daily… slowly killing the monk. His body was stripped of its fat, muscles and brain matter which inevitably aided the preservation of the material body. However, the body was riddled with so much poison that it failed to decompose properly and would in turn keep the maggots at bay.
Each day, the malnourished monk would ring a bell to let his fellow monks know that he was still alive; when the bell stopped ringing, he would then be cast into the final stages of his road to enlightenment. Sealed in his tomb, the monk would be left for a thousand days. After which the tomb would be opened, if he was a pile of bone and slop, the monk had failed in his quest for enlightenment. Yet, if the body remained preserved, he was regarded as a Living Buddha.
Today these monks are still classified as living citizens of Yamagata Prefecture. Making them some of the oldest dudes on Earth… and I needed to to see them.
I pulled up alongside Kaiko-ji Temple, one of three possible places in Yamagata Prefecture that I’d found on the Internet that might be able to help me in my little quest. The temple was small and unassuming; condensed into the grounds of eastern Sakata’s Hiyoriyama Park. The inside of the temple is believed to house two Living Buddha’s. Yet, judging by the lack of life around the complex, my efforts seemed far from promising. I walked up a set of stairs to the temple doors; a small tug on them revealing that the place was locked up tight. The small temple’s exterior was well preserved and sat amongst an equally well-groomed Japanese garden. This told me that the place was still cared for, but just wasn’t open for business. Not today, anyway. I sat in the shade of the steps, out of the sun, for some 15 minutes, in the hope I might spot a monk. After which I was bored. Heaven knows what it must have been like to sit in a box for 10 years, wasting away. I spent a little time walking around the park, along the tranquil forested byways dotted further with an assortment of shrines and temples. Yet, still, I could find no evidence of the living dead. I was a shit Mulder, and I desperately needed my Scully. Returning to Kaiko-show up Temple, I decided to give it one last go. Again, it was as empty and as void of life as it was previously, yet I couldn’t help but feel that I was somehow being watched from afar.
Daunted in my quest, I cycled east through Sakata; the aged port city formidably quiet. On the edge of town, adjacent to an ocean of rice paddies, I found my Couchsurfing host, Akira. He was a softly spoken I.T. Technician in his early sixties with a degree in Japanese Literature. I asked him about this and he said that he gained more satisfaction from computers than he did from books! He was shy in nature and at times it was difficult to prise a conversation out of him. I wondered if it was because I started banging on about the monks of the living dead… I might have scared him into thinking that I was some sort of necrophiliac. He claimed never to have heard of such a thing and changed the subject quite quickly. The potent smell of a conspiracy began to linger in the air.
However, a mutual bond was formed when he told me that he too was once a tour cyclist. Pulling out a rugged scrapbook, Akira showed me some black and white photographs of when he was a young man of 20 and had cycled across Hokkaidō with some school friends.
He had managed to achieve two things that I never quite managed, one was making it to the vastly remote Shiretoko Peninsula in the island’s far north-east and the other was seeing a wild grizzly bear. I wasn’t so concerned about the latter – as I liked my limbs – but was envious of him for reaching the wilds of Shiretoko. Informing me of the area’s grand and timeless beauty, merely dug the heel in a little deeper. Akira was a kindly and generous man; his mannerisms gracious and uniquely Japanese in every respect. He cooked me up a mean burger with green beans, carrots and miso soup. I washed it down with a can of Sapporo beer, before being shown to my soft, gentle and abundantly sleepable futon. Indeed, on this night, I slept like a Living Buddha.
‘Tokyo to Tokyo – A Cycling Adventure around Japan.’
Enjoy the ride.