An occasional student of mine has a family affiliation with Engakuji Rinzai Zen temple in Kamakura, which entitles her to the annual lunch and behind the scenes tour. All my random comments about Buddhism and Japanese culture finally paid off and I was invited along.


Lunch featured requests to scarf our food down with alacrity. Monks touched their foreheads to the tatami mats after we were served, after they explained the menu, after they offered us tea, and when we finally got our asses up and out the door.

Speeding monk

The monks were moving fast when they weren’t bowing. In the kitchen they had their sleeves tied up and they were washing dishes and wiping bowls. My super-deluxe polite Japanese request to take a photo of the kitchen was forwarded up the chain of command to a guy in gray samue. He sucked his teeth, said something about work being done, and bowed. Which meant no.


All the normal tourists got tsk-tsked away from the gate of the Shariden complex, inside of which is the zendo (meditation hall) and the Shariden building. “Shariden” actually refers to the gold reliquary, but the building housing it is also called the Shariden.


The building is a Japanese National Treasure because of its age (around 1563) and the fact that it once held or was supposed to have held a relic of the Buddha. Our tour guide (a monk with an orange bullhorn) told us it was a wisdom tooth, but when you do a Internet search for “Shariden” the sources say there are no relics left. Or the relics are from some venerable Japanese monk.


I wanted photos for my 2008 Hot Young Engakuji Monks calendar. Mr. May, the monk I most wanted a photo of, declined my request with sweetly pursed lips and a gorgeous bow. We got stuck with Bullhorn Fred instead.

Bucket and sandals

Luckily my hostess shares my enjoyment of what is NOT on the tour: we peeled off the main group and poked our heads in the back hall behind the zendo. Buddha’s wisdom tooth, yea, whatever—I can’t get enough of buckets and perfectly aligned sandals.

Zendo Engakuji