My strange encounter with a reluctant man of the cloth.
By Maria Kenney
It was spring, and I'd been living in Japan for the past five months. As you may or may not know, Japan is the worst place on the planet to be a single white female, but I'd managed to score a date that night with another foreigner, a fellow outcast. I was riding an empty train to Tokyo in the evening with only one other person in the carriage with me. After my long day's work, I was pretty dazed, so I didn't pay him any attention, and he didn't look at me the whole way. When we both got off at the last station, though, he jumped in front of me and started asking me questions in Japanese. I apologized haltingly that I didn't understand him.
"Where are you from?" he said, switching to English. He was tall and pretty good-looking, but he was totally bald under his hat, which you never see in Japan except among high-school students and yakuza guys.
I told him I was from Canada, while keeping an eye out for the guy I was supposed to meet. The bald guy's English was pretty broken, but he wasn't going anywhere, so I asked him about himself. He couldn't seem to find the right words.
"I… um… I… Buddha!" he said, and then he clapped his hands together in prayer. "Buddha! Do you know?"
"Yes… I know Buddha," I said, but I had no idea what he was talking about. Was he a religious-studies student or something? Then he asked for my number, which was good timing on his part, because I was officially curious at that point. He punched it into his dainty cell phone (with a Hello Kitty charm dangling from it, no less) and then said goodbye. I met my date, and ten minutes later my own phone buzzed with the following message:
hello! i think you are so atlactive when i saw you in train. i'm happy. by the way my job is monk.
Monk? But weren't monks supposed to wear those orange robes and meditate all day and, you know… not hit on blonde foreign women? I had so many questions for this alleged monk that it was all I could do just to prevent myself from texting him back and ignoring my date.
The monk asked me to meet him for drinks. I was positive that by "drinks" he really meant green tea, but I agreed. To my surprise, when we met, he pulled me into a popular local bar and ordered us a round of beer, and then another. He was wearing a knit cap. He kept much more quiet than he had when he'd approached me at the station, so small talk turned into me grilling him on the monastic life.
I learned that he was not technically a monk yet, but a monk-in-training. He was in his second year of a three-year apprenticeship program at a famous Buddhist temple. He lived with a few hundred other monks-in-training at the temple and he wore the orange robes and woke up at five a.m. every day to pray for hours on end. I was excited to hear about the "monk rules," of which there seemed to be a neverending list.
"Um…" he said, thinking hard. "We must shave our heads."
"Yeah, I noticed. What else?"
"Mmm… we must listen to elders at temple. We are not permitted to buy cell phone and buy these clothes." He gestured to his street clothes.
"Ever? Then why are you wearing them today?"
He paused to gather his English, and grinned. "I am bad monk."
I asked him if he ever got in trouble, and he said not often, but when he did get caught he would have to sit on the floor, knees bent and feet under his butt, for two whole hours while his legs lost circulation. If he did something really bad, one of the elder monks would get someone to "punch him." As he said all this he was wide-eyed yet straight-faced, betraying no hint of his emotions.
I didn't know what in the hell I was getting myself into. The monk was adorable, but in the manner of kittens and unicorns. Plus, he was bald, which interfered with my love of a good head of hair. I wondered if he was celibate, but then, did it matter? I couldn't see myself jumping into his futon even if he wasn't. On the other hand, the more answers he fed me, the more questions I had. I agreed to a second date.
When he took me to a famous Italian restaurant in the posh section of town, my mind exploded with more questions. Was this guy just shelling out to impress me, or was he improbably loaded? How could he have the money for this? Everyone stared at us, the mismatched couple, as we ate our steak. (Also forbidden to monks, incidentally.)
This time I learned more about his family, and I started to feel bad for him. He'd gone into training as a monk because his father and grandfather were both monks in another city; he pretty much had his career set out for him at birth. He went to university beforehand and got a degree in engineering, and he wanted to do all these things that being a monk just won't allow — traveling and having hair and (apparently) dating a blonde girl. Instead, he would have to move back to his hometown as soon as he finished monk training so he could take over as the head monk at his father's temple.
He also explained that as soon as he graduated from monk school and became a fully-fledged monk, he would find a wife and marry. He sounded hopeful, like it might be his one last chance at happiness. He didn't mention me specifically, but the implications were clear.
The worst part of his story, for me at least, came after the dishes had been cleared. He was staring out the window at a spectacular view of a dark sky and harbor when he asked, "Have you ever come here?"
"Before? Sure. Tons of times," I said, almost laughing, because it was the center of downtown Tokyo. Anyone who's ever visited Japan has been there.
"My is first time."
I didn't believe it. How could he live in the outskirts of Tokyo for two years and never enter the city? Then he told me, sheepishly, another "monk rule:" "We are not permitted to leave temple."
He explained that the time I'd met him on the train was the first time he'd ever snuck out. He had been going to an unofficial graduation party for a monk from another temple. The temple was like a prison for him, and he hadn't stepped outside its walls for more than a year after arriving. Just then, I realized how much hoop-jumping he'd done to meet me these two times. There might be a big punishment waiting for him when he returned.
We left the restaurant soon after. He paid for everything, and we parted without so much as a goodbye hug.
I felt awful.
Months later, in the thick of the hottest summer on record, I got a message on my phone:
long time no see. what news? we are going to hold big 'bonnodori' i want you to come. bring your friends! absolutely, you can enjoy!
After our last date, I had stopped returning his calls. I wasn't meant to be the wife of a monk, just like he wasn't meant to be the husband of a sex blogger. Like any perceptive young Japanese guy, he got the message right away and stopped calling. My blog had been awfully quiet lately, and I wondered if I had engaged him half over the possibility of a good story. I couldn't risk letting him get hurt if I was only interested in the story I might tell later on.
And tell it I did, at any opportunity. All summer it was, "Did I ever tell you about that monk I dated?" On the phone, over the internet, in person. The shock value was through the roof.
I didn't know what bonnodori meant, but I showed up on the specified date with an entourage of foreign girls. Wearing very little in the baking heat, we pushed our way through a crowd of thousands to a wide lot, which had been converted to an outdoor dance arena. Every third person in the crowd was a bald monk in black cotton robes. We peered in and out of the temple halls surrounding the dancers until we found my monk. I had prepared myself for an icy greeting, but he was overjoyed to see me.
Over the next few hours, I must've met and danced with almost one hundred monks-in-training, all with little to no English skills. I couldn't help but feel like I was being paraded around like some exotic Canadian animal, the showpiece moose. Could I really complain though? Two can play that game, and I'd already played it to death.
The monks danced with my friends and then were traded out. It was a revolving door of young bald men. Really, though, with their identical robes and haircuts, it could've been the same monks over and over. The sun set and a cloud of mosquitos gathered overhead. My monk and I separated from the group, bouncing along to the squeaky music in such simple Japanese that even I understood it: "Suki suki suki!"
"Love love love! I love you!" We danced into the dusky night, jumping to the same beat, a thousand worlds apart.