Our family temple is about 300 years old, and is famous for its garden of
(azalea). When I first came to live here in the 1980s, it was the province of a very shy, hardworking priest who came from Iwane in Shiga Prefecture and worked in our temple from around 1955, raising a family, supervising funerals of our small parish, doing the various annual services; he had a universal reputation for his good chanting voice. He died around 2010, leaving the temple with no one to take care of it. This is a common fate of small temples in Japan; I have heard that there are over 20,000 small temples without priests.
I came to this house fresh from getting a degree in Japanese Buddhism in Kyoto, and I often wanted to chat to the priest about questions I had on doctrine. To this kind of overture, he just giggled (he was shy, as I said, and quite silent). But he did his job, not least in looking after the azalea plants, and everyone was sad when he passed. For the next nine years or so we limped along with a priest coming in from the neighboring village to perform regular services, while we discussed what should be done about the temple. We put in several requests to our head temple, Chion’in in Kyoto, and some potential priests did come, but they were put off by the smallness and isolation of the place, and the impossibility of making enough money to live just from priestly duties (the old priest used to zoom around on a little motorcycle, reading water meters around the village, to augment his income).
Finally, in summer 2020, a different priest was introduced to us. He had retired and decided to take the three-year course to become a priest, and ours was the first temple he had been in charge of. In his late 50s, he retired from a successful career as a rakugo-ka (traditional comedian) in Osaka, known as the home of comedy in Japan. His former home was in Takarazuka, a trendy town and site of the famous all-women’s drama theater.
The first time he and his wife came to meet the members of our parish (we have only about 10 households) I could tell he was a live wire with an engaging gift of the gab. Some of our members were dubious – “why would a guy like that want to live in a place like this?” was the attitude, but in the end his sincerity won us over. For the past 18 months or so he has lived here and made firm friends of many of the villagers, including children (he has volunteered to walk with the kids to school) and also performed numerous times, both at the temple and at various village halls. I would have to say that, after he has done this work for so many years, just about every conversation with him is a performance. It’s fun to experience.
Rakugo is a form of one-man comedy in which the comedian stands or sits in Japanese style on a cushion and tells anecdotes, not precisely jokes. In fact it is a kind of combination of pantomime, acting, and recitation in various voices and accents, reminiscent of joruri (the recitation accompanying the bunraku puppet theatre). It has elements of prop comedy too, as the artist uses a fan and a piece of cloth which do duty as anything he wants; they can become chopsticks and a plate for sampling delicacies, pen and paper to write a letter, etc. The comedy itself is something like a skit in which the comedian takes all the parts, performing conversations in various dialects, sometimes broad, sometimes refined. (A typical scene involves a drunkard at a bar trying to con the proprietor into giving him free food.)
It is said that rakugo evolved when Buddhist priests were trying to hold their audience’s attention during dry sermons. This is a little different from stand-up in the West, which I think must have evolved from the court jesters and troubadours in European royal courts. There are few exchanges that could be described as “jokes” in the Western sense. The comedy sometimes relies on plays on words, but there is no “get it?” vibe here; mostly it is the kind of warm, inclusive comedy that invites us to laugh at our own foibles and those of our fellow men. I often don’t understand the joke, because it references people, places and culture from bygone periods. But watching a skilled pantomimist is always fun, and it is interesting to hear all the different accents.
This priest is alone a lot of the time, since his wife is still working part-time back in Takarazuka. You can imagine this isn’t a very pleasant situation for a man who lives to talk. We invited him to dinner at our home recently, and he entertained us nonstop with funny anecdotes and observances. My husband said, he’s an easy guest, just wind him up and off he goes, effortlessly doing most of the work of keeping the conversation alive. I’m pretty closemouthed generally, especially with people I don’t know well, and my husband is a never-ending fount of information about the village, so it’s a good balance.
He seems to be a pretty good priest, too; we hear him chanting early in the morning by himself, and he is quite efficient at the regular services and also is an enthusiastic garden cleaner. He’s got a mindset that I consider essential for a priest: gratitude. He’s genuinely grateful for this place and its inhabitants, who have accepted him rather bemusedly but wholeheartedly. He is gradually making a place for himself here, and looks to be an asset to the village.
He’s also pretty broadminded, as you would expect from someone with a theatre background. When I said I wasn’t particularly interested in going to the Pure Land (Heaven) when I die, he didn’t bat an eye.