Little by little, with every pedal-stroke I got closer to the monastery nestled in the mountains between Kyoto and Nara where I used to attend a monthly meditation retreat for three days (see earlier post).

The “ofuro” (hot tub like a “cannibal’s pot”) was like heaven. After three weeks of pedaling and sleeping outdoors, having a roof over my head, a tatami floor beneath my feet, hot food on my plate, and overall the tranquility of the monastery, not only eliminated the ascetic component of that retreat, but felt almost like a balmy vacation. Even the many hours sitting still, without movement, served to heal the tendinitis of my knees caused by so much pedalling.

Upon its completion, when rather than taking the bus with my fellow meditators I took the bike, I could not help but wince emotionally. A very cold Japanese November awaited.

My next destination was Antaiji, the monastery where Sawaki Roshi and Uchiyama Roshi revitalized Zen the last century. Originally, Antaiji was located in Kyoto, but  later it was moved to a plateau on a mountain near the North Sea coast, in Hyogo prefecture.

The day that commemorates the enlightenment of Prince Gautama (when he became a Buddha, a awaken being), the eighth and final day of the twelfth lunar month, is a Buddhist holy day. The cosmic implications of that date are obvious and identical to those of Christmas. The winter solstice marks a turning point, that date is when the sun stops falling and begins to climb again on the sky and over the horizon. Paradoxically, the coldest season of the year opens with more solar radiation; inside the dull winter the sun’s movement already heralds the arrival of another spring.

The modernization of Japan during the Meiji period led to the abandonment of the lunar calendar in favor of the western one, which meant that the festival of Buddha’s enlightenment was fixed on December 8th. The week that culminates on that date (fist week of December), Zen Buddhist temples frequently hold a meditation retreat called Rohatsu. That year (2002) I’d bike to Antaiji to participate in its Rohatsu. It “only”  took me five weeks to get there.