Yasui Yuji-san: A man of conviction and passion
There are places of beauty that touch me, but the garden at out-of-the-way Rengeji Temple in northeastern Kyoto is one of my favorites. The shady courtyard entry was planted in wildflowers by resident priest Yasui Yuji-san, a passionate environmentalist. By impeccably maintaining the 400-year old Tendai Buddhist site, he provides us with a richly contemplative atmosphere. Rengeji a very special place for those who find their way to its gate.
Yasui-san was born in 1941, the son and grandson of Tendai priests at Rengeji. When he was nine years old, he received tokudo initiatory rites of the priesthood. On weekends and school vacations, he was sent to a relative’s temple in Fukui prefecture on the Sea of Japan, to assist at funerals and memorial services for temple members. Then, when in high school, after considerable thought, he decided to break with this kind of life. He walked out of that temple, returned home to Rengeji.
After finishing high school in 1959, Yasui-san left for Tokyo to attend a college preparatory school. He had no money and needed to support himself. Japan was still a poor country recovering from the war. For three years, he went to classes in the morning and worked after school. He had a number of interesting jobs, including that of a “sandwich man,” wearing signs like a sandwich and advertising a cabaret in the Ginza district.
At that time he was living in a very poor, downtown neighborhood which was home to many small manufacturers of slippers. The smell of the glue filled the air. The public bath in the neighborhood catered to low-life types, and gangsters covered with tattoos were not uncommon. Sometimes he would stand in line with homeless people waiting to work as day laborers. He actually looks back on that time of his life with great fondness. After all, as difficult as times were, they was not as bad as earlier-post war years, when students sold their blood to help meet their expenses.
He moved 10 times during that 3-year period. His most interesting house was the one he and a friend built in a mulberry orchard. It was spacious, with room to draw and paint. He was hoping to become an artist.
Yasui-san eventually entered prestigious Tokyo Art University (Tokyo Geijustsu Daigaku) with a major in oil painting. He was influenced much by the Pop Art movement and artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. He had no interest at that time in Buddhist art.
After graduation, he worked as an artist in Tokyo, creating shows with groups of his friends. He got married and had two children. Later, he got a job teaching at a prep school in Osaka, which catered to students hoping to enter art universities. He was 30 years old when he decided to return with his wife and children to his family temple, Rengeji, as a priest. He entered Enryakuji monastery on Mt. Hiei for training before receiving his ordination. He has been at Rengeji ever since.
In the early 1970’s Japan was finally recovering from the war. People were beginning to enjoy leisure activities and the number of tourists visiting Kyoto soared. Rengeji, however, was completely unknown. It was not even on the map. Like many temples at that time, it was in very bad condition and had a leaky roof. His family began to open the temple and charge a small admission fee. The word spread and more people came. They, used the money to both support themselves and restore the temple..
After a few years, the city of Kyoto started levying tax on temples that charged admission. Yasui-san was incensed because temples were religious institutions and supposedly exempt from tax. His tried to gather support from other priests in Kyoto. Though initially only able to find only two other priests to join, the Bukkyokai (Buddhist Temple Organization of Kyoto) was born. They researched Japanese tax laws starting with the Meiji restoration. The organization grew and Yasui-san became acquainted with a wide range of religious leaders, including Shinto priests as well as those in the recently formed new religions. They eventually won their case. The government compromised with a law on the books requiring temples and religious organizations to register each year with a form and fee. Some of the temples pay the fee but do not file the form. Yasui-san refuses to do either.
Yasui-san is an active spokesman for environmental issues and for restricting building in Kyoto. A big part of his work is sweeping and weeding the moss garden at Rengeji. In the winter, there are no leaves that fall, so he has more time for his hiking passion. He likes to hike as much as possible, especially beyond re-forested areas into native uncut growth.
In Collaboration with Photographer, Helen Hasenfeld
© Photos by Helen Hasenfeld