Kezoji Temple priest's meal woos visitors

The Yomiuri Shimbun, Dec 13, 2008

Matsue, Japan -- A few years ago, the only priest at Kezoji, an ancient temple in Matsue, hit upon a novel idea to attract more visitors - offering traditional Buddhist cuisine, prepared by the priest himself.

Genshin Yoshimoto started offering his shojinryori vegetarian meals, which are traditional fare for priests, hoping to boost interest in Kezoji. The response from visitors has been enthusiastic, with one noting that though the meal is quite simple, it would be impossible to enjoy such a meal elsewhere.

The temple, located near the top of Mt. Makuragi, was founded by the Tendai sect about 1,200 years ago.

During the Kamakura period (1192-1333), the temple switched affiliations to the Rinzai Zen sect and flourished.

Fire damage incurred during the 16th-century's Sengoku (Warring States) period was repaired in the Edo period (1603-1867) when it served as a prayer hall for Yoshiharu Horio, the local feudal lord.

Around that time, locals dubbed the temple Makuragi-san after the mountain it is located on.

But the temple's popularity waned in the early Meiji era (1868-1912) and it never really recovered. Having once been the temple of a feudal clan, it had few patrons in the neighborhood.

"Mt. Makuragi is now better known for its TV transmission tower than it is for its temple. Kezoji is little known even among people in Matsue," Yoshimoto said.

The temple's main hall and kitchen, which date to the early Edo period, have fallen into disrepair. Even the roofs of the main hall and kitchen leak.

Yoshimoto, 54, originally from Fukuoka Prefecture, began his stint at the temple in 2005 after serving at Kyoto's Daitokuji temple for about 20 years.

Yoshimoto first planned to renovate the Kaizando founder's hall, which was being used as storage space, by 2011, the 700th anniversary since the temple switched its affiliation.

Yoshimoto first considered seeking alms in the city to fund the project, but this would have left the temple empty for long periods.

He then thought of tapping his culinary skills acquired while serving as an apprentice priest, as it would mean he could remain on the temple grounds. He obtained a business license, and in spring 2006, he began offering shojinryori meals to visitors.

Yoshimoto uses mountain vegetables he gathers from the surrounding hills and seasonal vegetables donated by local farmers for the meals.

In autumn, for example, he serves about 10 items, such as persimmons seasoned with a tofu dressing and other ingredients, and vegetables that have been soaked in vinegar and wrapped in the skins of yuzu, a citrus. All meals are made to look especially appetizing. Green tea is offered at the end of the meals.

The meal service has had a noticeable impact on the number of visitors to the temple, Yoshimoto said, with some people coming from Okayama and Hiroshima prefectures to taste them.

The temple also boasts of a huge stone statue of the Fudo Myoo Buddha image and a panoramic view of Lake Nakaumi, which straddles Shimane and Tottori prefectures.

"The temple seems to have a charm that makes visitors want to return," Yoshimoto said.

"I hope my cooking gives an extra incentive," he added.