Eiheiji: The World’s Most Important Zen Temple
Japan has no shortage of beautiful temples and shrines; places like Nara, Kyoto, Ise, and Nikko are must see tourist destinations due to their noteworthy temples, and Japan's temples and shrines are the main draw for many tourists. However, while those are all worthwhile places to explore, Eiheiji temple (永平寺) in Fukui Prefecture manages to stand out. While all temples and shrines are of course places of worship, Eiheiji is also a monastery that houses and trains over 200 monks and nuns. For those curious about Buddhism, it is an interesting place to visit. As it is the largest training monastery in Japan, it is fairly unique, and visiting is a great way to familiarize yourself with Zen Buddhism. Even those who are less interested in religion will no doubt be awed by this gorgeous temple.
There are many Buddhist denominations in Japan and, along with Rinzai Zen (臨済宗) Soto Zen (曹洞宗) is one of the largest. It is different from Rinzai Zen in various ways. Historically, Soto was seen as “farmer zen” as compared with Rinzai’s "samurai zen". As this implies, Soto had more mass appeal while Rinzai was practiced by many in the ruling and samurai class. One difference is the use of koan or philosophical puzzles that are used as a tool to achieve enlightenment. One of the most famous koan is the “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” riddle. While koan are used in the Soto sect, they are not stressed in the same degree that they are in the Rinzai sect. Similarly, there is less of a focus on achieving enlightenment or Satori with Soto Zen; the emphasis is more on fully experiencing the here and the now. Soto was introduced to Japan in the year 1227 by a man named Dogen Zenji. While he had been previously studying in Kyoto, he grew disillusioned and left Japan to study Buddhism in China. After he returned to Japan, he founded Eiheiji monastery to teach Soto Zen. One of the most common practices here and at other Soto temples is Shikantaza , another term for zazen or seated meditation. Meditation is a large part of a monk's day though of course, they are also trained in various rituals and ceremonies associated with Soto Buddhism.
Eiheiji, along with Soji-ji (總持寺) in Kanagawa, is one of the head Soto temples, and it is the primary training temple. Training takes anywhere from three months to two years. The 200 or so monks in residence lead a simple life, each with only one tatami mat to sleep and meditate on. Their day starts very early at 3:30 AM for meditation and sutras, followed by chores, simple meals, and more zazen. The life of a monk is often a silent one as they are forbidden from talking in the Zazen hall, the baths, and the toilet. Every five days, priests shave each other's heads and then bathe. Of course, even the baths are preceded by chants, and there is even a small altar dedicated to a bodhisattva who achieved enlightenment through his bath.
Those who want an inside look of the life of a monk in training may be disappointed by the temple; while visitors associated with another Soto organization can arrange to stay at the temple, tourists are not permitted to see inside the living quarters of the monks. Indeed, much of the temple complex and gorgeous grounds are off limits to visitors. Fortunately, visitors are given a booklet that explains the main parts of the temple and the various customs of the monks. While a photo is of course not the same as seeing something for yourself, it is highly informative and well worth the read.
However, there is no need to be dismayed as there is still plenty to see. You enter through a modern reception hall that leads you into the temple complex where you can see many interesting things. One notable room is Joyoden or founders hall, where Dogen's ashes are kept. His image and those of his disciples are still served daily, just as if they were living. There is also the butsuden or Buddha hall, which has a lovely alter. The Sanmom gate is particularly striking, and it is the oldest of the buildings at Eiheiji. The buildings, walkways, and inner garden are beautiful in their own right, and I enjoyed just admiring the stunning temple structures. The walk up to the temple and its surrounding grounds were a highlight for me as well; the moss covered stones, tall cedar trees, and small pond make the temple all the more breathtaking. While I wish you could explore more of the grounds, what you can see is wonderfully peaceful and lovely.
Eiheiji is open from 4:00 to 17:00 (5:30 to 16:30 in the winter), and it costs ¥500 to enter. For those with a car, Eiheiji is an easy 30 minute drive from Fukui City, and there is ample paid parking lots in the area, many of which will waive the fee if you buy souvenirs. A car is the best way to explore Fukui since it allows one to easily combine Eiheiji with other worthwhile sites in the area like the spectacular Tojinbo Cliffs (東尋坊) or the fascinating dinosaur museums. Cars can be rented for as little as ¥3500 a day. For those without, there are hourly buses that cost ¥720 for the 30 minute trip from Fukui station. For those coming from Kanazawa, there are also buses available from Awara Onsen station (芦原温泉駅) though these are less frequent. As for Fukui, it is a relatively short ride from Kanazawa, taking 45-80 minutes depending on the train. Fukui does not have a Shinkansen bullet train so it is harder to access for those coming from Tokyo or Osaka and it will require a transfer to an express train at Kanazawa or Maibara.
Eiheiji is a stunning temple that offers a fascinating peek at the lives of monks. While it can be crowded, it still manages to offer a peaceful atmosphere, and it's impossible not to be charmed by the beautiful grounds and buildings. The temple has a lot to offer so if you are in the Hokuriku area, it is not to be missed.