Yamabushi name: Shuetsu Ito
The sounds of conch shells resonated through the streets of Paris and Budapest.Blowing the shells were Haguro yamabushi from Japan. As mountain ascetics, we normally reside at the foot of Dewa Sanzan (Three Sacred Mountains of Dewa) in northeastern Japan. This was a rather surreal experience. Feeling slightly out of place, we asked ourselves what we were doing so far away from home. Was this to be our new training ground? While being comforted by the universality of the sky and welcoming smiles, the eleven days spent in France and Hungary was indeed, in a sense, a new form of ascetic training for us.
We were to be the first in the 1400-year history of Dewa Sanzan to introduce its Buddhist vegetarian cuisine, known as shojin ryori, in Europe. The eleven days sped by quickly, but we were constantly worried about how successful we would be in presenting this life-kindling cuisine and conveying the Haguro yamabushi's passion towards it to a foreign audience.
Upon landing in Paris, we immediately headed towards the marchés and supermarkets to purchase supplies. Although we were able to procure everything on our list, the exotic ingredients, quantities and taste posed a challenge to Shinkichi Ito, our head chef, who spent days and sleepless nights experimenting right up until the day of the event.
On the day of our presentation, our venue, the Japan Cultural Institute in Paris was packed, its atmosphere charged with excitement we'd never experienced before. Suddenly we realized we had a problem on our hands. We mistook our starting time to be 13:30, which in fact turned out to be 13:00! We stepped up our tempo to make up for thirty minutes of lost preparation time. Slight panic ensued, especially when changing into our yamabushi robes. Assuming can be a very dangerous thing.
We were far from being completely prepared, but true to the spirit of the Haguro yamabushi, we managed to rise to the occasion. Trained to be calm under any calamity, we carried out our mission like veteran yamabushi. After suffusing the hall in a mystical atmosphere, we moved on to the main event, a tasting of shojin ryori. Celebratory sake was poured. The conviviality and content smiles of the audience touched our hearts. This was certainly a worthwhile journey.
After the presentation ended, we were asked to hold a similar event in Italy. We hope this means we were successful in striking a chord with our Parisian audience.
Left: Lecture Right: Cultural exchange
Our next stop was Budapest in Hungary. The snow-capped mountains visible from the airplane were mesmerizing. How I longed for the mountains and my life as yamabushi....Budapest's airport is located in an agricultural region. It was as if I had returned to our mountain. As I breathed the air that reminded me of home, I felt at peace and comfortable with this city, its people and architecture. I felt I could live here.
During our demonstration in Hungary, we encountered several mishaps. The cornstarch did not mix well with the water. The rice cooker malfunctioned. Yet just as in Paris, we were able to overcome these setbacks with the kind support of the local people. And our demonstration was a resounding success in Budapest as well. Here, too, the sweet smiles of the people were deeply heartening.
We are grateful to the countless number of people who helped us over the long eleven-day trip in Europe. While we are unable to name them all in this space, our journey served to remind us that meeting and connecting with people is truly something to be treasured.
Now it's your turn to come and visit us at Dewa Sanzan and to experience at first-hand our home in the sacred mountains. Undergo ascetic training that is sure to be life-changing. Refresh your body and soul with shojin ryori
And finally, may I remind you that partaking of sake is a key part of this training. We look forward to welcoming you.
A detailed diary of the eleven-day trip in Japanese can be found at the following website of the Haguro Tourist Association (in Japanese):http://hagurokanko.jp/news-event/281-shojinryorireport.html
(Yamabushi name: Shuetsu Ito)
Ito was born in the town of Haguro, Yamagata Prefecture, in 1972. He joined the Haguro Municipal Office in 1995. Haguro later became a part of Tsuruoka City when it merged with other outlying municipalities. Ito became a yamabushi in 2002 after completing the seven-day initiation rites (aki no mineiri) at the Dewa Sanzan Shrine. He is currently posted at the Ideha Cultural Museum located at the foot of Mount Haguro as well as at the Haguro Tourist Association office. He devotes his time disseminating information on the history and spiritual culture of Dewa Sanzan as well as promoting tourism of the area.