Eihei-ji is one of those temples that many Japanese have heard of but few have actually visited. On New Year’s Eve, the temple is featured on Japanese television ringing out the old year with 108 purifying tones. This classical temple is famous for its Zen style meditation, distinctive vegetarian meals and of course, as a temple that is actively training monks. Located in the beautiful mountains near Fukui City, it is one of Fukui’s main drawcard, and a unique opportunity to understand Zen within a natural setting.
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Accessed via bus from Fukui City, Eihei-ji is a traditional, large temple complex, surrounded by cedar. The monastery was founded in 1244 (Kamakura period) by Dogen – a famous Buddhist scholar who was the first to introduce the Soto sitting style of Zen to Japan. It is also the center of training for Buddhist monks of the Soto sect.
The silent calm of the temple, despite the crowds that start coming in from 9.30 am by coach, is still maintained as you walk through the green nature that engulfs the wooden temple halls. The scurrying footsteps of trainee monks rushing from one duty to another adds to the sense that Eihei-ji is an active temple, full of life and rich with history. This is in direct contrast to other temples which seem to lack such religious activity within their walls.
The 70 buildings that makeup Eihei-ji are ancient and have a distinctive atmosphere about them. Lacking the ornateness of the other Buddhist temples – such as the Senso-ji in Asakusa, halls are elemental in style. Yet this adds to the charm and serenity of the place.
The Eihei-ji temple was destroyed by fire several times. In the 16th century, disciples of a rival Buddhist sect burned it down. Despite these problems, the temple has continued to remain one of the most significant temples in Japan, training more than 250 monks each year. Visitors can enjoy the atmosphere by partaking in a mini-training course where they can share duties, meals, and accommodations with the trainee monks. It’s a great way to experience Zen. Formal training for monks usually takes 2 years. Monks start their day at 3:30 am with chants, eating carefully prepared rice and vegetables, practicing meditation and performing maintenance tasks around the temple.
Covered walkways connect the sizable temple complex. In winter, deep snow surrounds the temple. In summer, nature imposes itself on the temple, merging forest and temple into one. Eihei-ji has some key highlights that must not be missed. The first is inside the main hall. It costs 500 yen to enter and you need to carry your shoes through the temple buildings. The ‘Sanshogaku’ is a magnificent ceiling with 230 paintings, based on themes of flowers and birds. It is also a memorial to the founder of the temple.
The Shichido building is the main training hall of the temple. Here you can see many trainee monks perform their duties. Inside the hall are statues of Amida, Shakyamuni, and Boddhisatva Miroku, representing Buddhas of the past, present, and future.
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Yet the most iconic image of Eihei-ji is the Karamon Gate, which is actually outside the main temple complex. The gate is significant and beautiful. It is only opened on special occasions, and known as the Chokushi-mon – meaning the gate for the ‘Imperial envoy’. Apart from the Emperor, only the head priest of the Eihei-ji can enter. It’s a great photo opportunity – both in summer and in winter.
While getting to Fukui and Eihei-ji might involve a few transfers with the public transportation, it is one of those sites that indeed, must be visited if you have an interest in Zen and Zen history in Japan. It is an icon of Buddhist tradition and yet is a place that many do not visit. Surrounded by cedar and steeped in history, it is a great way to experience an active Japanese monastery and meditate on the meaning of life.
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