It was a cold rainy fall day when I visited Eiheiji Zen Temple in the mountains of Fukui prefecture. And I don’t think I would have wanted it any other way. I have since seen brighter more “summery” photos of the area, but I seem to prefer the rain. There is something about that place that makes the cold and rain seem warm and fuzzy.
I want to be clear that this is a psychological warm and fuzzy. I should warn anybody who is going there, that you have to take your shoes off immediately after entering the first building. This should be no surprise by the time you get this deep into Japan. The difference here is that this is a huge complex crawling up the side of a mountain. Wooden floored hallways and wide open-air staircases connect all the buildings. There is no heat, air conditioning, or carpet covered floors. As D.T. Suzuki says, “when man is in agreement with Nature, Nature will help man to understand himself.” The rough translation here is, “bring your thickest socks.” Or Suzuki can quote me as saying, “If it’s cold enough to snow outside, then its cold enough to snow inside.”
I handed my Goshuin (Japanese temple stamp book) to the Calligraphy Monk at the appropriate desk in the “hotel lobby”. I gave him a ¥500 coin and bowed slightly. He gave me the usual bow plus sweeping-arm-gesture that ends pointing at the entrance. It means: Go have fun, while I stay here and work my magic. I bow again slightly. This means: Thank you. Understood… looking forward to the fun and will return later. My Japanese seems to be so much better when I don’t actually have to say anything.
One of the first things you’ll notice that sets Eiheiji apart from other temples is that it’s alive with people. The first building that you enter feels like an expensive hotel lobby. There are monks walking here and there quietly going about their business.
Eiheiji is the Zen Capital of the world. With its sister school, Sojoji in Yokohama, they form the pinnacle of Zen meditation training for Soto Zen.
Though there are several beautiful buildings and rooms in the Eiheiji complex, one of them really stood out for me. The first room you are ushered into to start your walking tour is called the “Sanshoukaku” (伞松阁). It is a large tatami covered reception hall with a ceiling covered in small circular paintings. 230 different paintings to be exact (See Photo). It’s like the Japanese Sistine Chapel. The more I thought about it the more parallels started to become clear. Both are small buildings off a main spiritual structure. Both were painted by multiple artist (144 different artist contributed to the Sanshoukau ceiling). Both reflect the height of that cultures’ artistic style. The Japanese wood and tatami vs mediaeval architecture. Japanese minimalist design vs Italian renaissance painting. Tenjo-e vs fresco. Fascinating stuff.
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