Traveling to Japan: Katsuyama – temple meditation without the crowds

  • FUKUI
  • SPOT
  • TRAVEL
  • Nestled within the beautiful Fukui Mountains, the Taishizan Seidaiji temple in Katsuyama is indeed one of those places that words can never fully describe. Yet for many, the temple is not the first thing they think of when they hear the word Katsuyama.

    Katsuyama is synonymous with the Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum. This well advertised and promoted museum has all the things you could ever want in terms of dinosaur history and bones.

    When you come out of Katsuyama’s small station there is even a huge dinosaur statute to greet you. Yet if you walk ten minutes in the opposite direction, you will come across the Taishizan Seidaiji and while it may not be promoted as much, it is in my opinion, one of the Fukui’s true wonders.

    The majestic Taishizan Seidaiji within the forest

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    Author’s photo

    The walk to the temple from the station is a pleasant one. The temple is surrounded by lush green forest, paddy fields and a mountain-scape over 1,000m high. Moving through farm land, gives you time to enjoy nature before entering the temple area itself.

    The walk is not too long and gives to an opportunity to reflect on your surrounding before you enter the temple area.

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    Surrounding area and Omotesando

    Located a short distance from the main roads, the magnificence of the Taishizan Seidaiji is deceptively hidden and walking up the omotesando fails to reveal the sheer size of the temple precinct – over 54.4 acres.

    The shops that line the omotesando are interesting, however sadly, many have closed down. The ones that remain try their best to attract the tourists that walk up to the temple.

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    Taishizan Seidaiji courtyard

    Please stop and enjoy their hospitality and food! The street winds upwards and then, suddenly, there it is – the Taishizan Seidaiji! The enormity of the temple can quickly be seen when you pass through the gates and enter the two-tier temple courtyard.

    Lacking the age and history of many other Japanese temples, Taishizan Seidaiji has relatively few visitors for such a large temple, which is sad because this is a truly amazing place to explore (but it is also good, as it allows you time to take everything in without feeling rushed by many, many tourists).

    The History of Taishizan Seidaiji

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    Author’s photo

    The history of the Taishizan Seidaiji is an interesting one. It was founded in 1987 thanks to the philanthropy of Kiyoshi Tada, a Fukui businessman and founder of an Osaka taxi company, who donated his entire wealth to the construction of the temple.

    Due to its lack of religious foundation, the temple was originally not incorporated within the Buddhist religious order, however, this changed in 2002. The temple is now run by the Rinzai sect of the Myoshinji school and costs 500 yen to enter.

    But what Taishizan Seidaiji lacks in history, it more than makes up for in style and architecture. Many of the great buildings are based on ancient Chinese designs, including the Wall of Nine Dragons and the five-storied Pagoda. All building structures and statues have been created meticulously on historical records and ancient texts, so you know what you see was actually how it used to be (authentically modern).

    However the highlight of the temple, along with the peaceful calmness, is its Echizen Daibutsu Buddha.

    Echizen Daibutsu Buddha

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    Author’s photo

    Based on the Seidaiji in Nara (Great Western Temple), Fukui’s Buddha is in fact taller – more than 17 meters and 22 tons, making it one of the world’s largest metal casted statues. Around the Giant Buddha, are a series of wooden shelves containing smaller white Buddha figurines in various poses. Calming sutras are played within the hall and the tranquility of the hall cannot be understated.

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    Author’s photo

    Also, because it doesn’t have the history of Nara, the crowds are not here and so a meditative calm is in ample supply. The coolness of the inside and the vast number of places to meditate and enjoy, makes the hall a magical experience.The chanting from the speakers gives the impression you are part of a much wider “community”.

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    Serow (Kamoshika) in the forest

    Surrounding the temple is a wonderfully rich forest. The pristine nature of the forest contains a tapestry of wildlife, including birds and mammals. On my journey I was fortunate enough to see a Serow (Kamoshika) – Japanese antelope in the woodlands. These animals are rarely seen, but in Fukui, their numbers have increased, and this was a very special event for me.

    The small waterfall, the running streams, the cedar and pine woods, and the natural landscape added to the temples serenity and enjoyment of the area.

    Echizen Katsuyama Castle

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    Echizen Katsuyama Castle

    From the Taishizan Seidaiji pagoda you get a wonderful view of the temple and surrounding area, including the Echizen Katsuyama Castle. Katsuyama castle was originally built in 1579 by the Daimyo Shibata Katsuyasu, but changed hands frequently during the Japanese civil war. This modern castle was reconstructed recently, again through the donations of Kiyoshi Tada (his mark and charity work is everywhere). The castle makes a lovely side trip and is about out a ten minute walk from the Taishizan Seidaiji. The castle has a small museum and café, and its traditional design adds value to the Katsuyama landscape.

    A photographer’s dream, with dragon sculptures adorning each entrance and surrounded by natural farm land, Katsuyama Castle was constructed using over 6,500 of locally mined rocks. Its addition, in 1992, of a large six-story tower has attracted many tourists. Yet, this authentically designed replica, still retains an ore of history. The small museum and tower adds to this realism by housing a fine collection of genuine artifacts, clothing, artwork and weapons dating back more than 650 years. Climbing up to the sixth floor, the observation deck boasts views of Katsuyama and the Hakusan mountain range.

    Another interesting site near the Taishizan Seidaiji and a further 10 minutes from the castle, is the historic Eiheiji Temple. This large Zen temple was founded in 1244. Nestled inside a wonderful cedar forest, its name means “temple of eternal peace”.

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    The temple

    So there you have it, Katsuyama – a rural treasure of North-East Fukui. Surrounded by mountains and natural beauty, this small town of about 25,000 people, is home to some of the best secrets in the region. Katsuyama has it all – Taishizan Seidaiji, with its modern history, peacefulness and stylish architecture, Katsuyama Castle, an amazingly structure within a “sea of nature”, the historic serenity of Eiheiji Temple, and off course, for the young ones, a wonderful dinosaur museum.

    The town itself also offers a lot of natural charm to attract tourists to stay and enjoy a meal. The people are friendly, and new comers are very welcome. Accessible via the small Echizen Railway, Katsuyama really is a gift waiting to opened!