Shaven-headed Sato, who starts each day with a morning prayer, is following his younger brother Eiken, who also trained as a priest and rode at the Beijing Games. His sister, Tae, 24, is a five-time national showjumping champion.
And his father, Shodo, who heads a 460-year-old temple and adjacent horse-riding club, was a member of Japan’s equestrian team before the 1980 Games in Moscow – only to have his Olympic dream dashed when Japan boycotted.
Kenki Sato is on extended leave from the Myoshoji temple in mountains near Nagano, where his father is the 25th master, to train for London where he will compete in eventing, which combines dressage, cross-country and showjumping.
Among his team-mates is Hiroshi Hoketsu, 71, the oldest competitor in any sport at Beijing 2008, who is entered in the separate dressage category.
They are not strongly tipped to end Japan’s 80-year wait for a second equestrian medal, following Baron Takeichi Nishi’s showjumping gold of 1932. But Sato said the experience would have spiritual value.
“I may learn something as a human being when I encounter various people with different religions and languages abroad,” says the diminutive Sato, who turned 28 on Wednesday.
“I want to feed it back into my path to Buddhist enlightenment.”