Feel the Zen at Soji-ji in Yokohama
On the first day of the first month of the new year, if not right at the midnight bell sounds, the Japanese visit a temple to pray for the upcoming year ahead. The first visit to a temple is called Hatsumode.
Whether it is a Shinto or a Buddhist temple it doesn’t matter. It is important to go and pray very early on in the new year, in order to get the most of the good luck. Every temple is good for a prayer, be it the famous or the local neighborhood one. In Yokohama, a famous temple is Soji-ji, which actually is one of the main Zen Buddhism temples in Japan.
This temple hosts something like 200 monks, who learn and practice the zen buddhist way of life, made of simple food, prayer, study, meditation, discipline. I was impressed when I discovered what their typical day looks like, they wake up at 04:00 hours and go to bed at 21:00 hours!!!
The temple is built on a hill, and a pleasant paved walk leads upwards to the main gate, via a smaller gate in the middle. The gate itself is also another very big structure, among the biggest, and the fact that it is at the top of the walk sounds very strategic to me: walk up the hill and breathe a sigh of relief once the gate comes in sight.
When festivals are held at the temple, this walk becomes super crowded because vendors set up their food stalls on both sides of the path, to the point that people who want to walk have to wrestle their way up or down against people who are queuing for food.
The main shrine is huge, like the size of 1000 tatami mats, its roof of a pleasant light green color that can be also seen from far away.
By the way, the Japanese measure room sizes based on tatami units. And tatami is a square of woven bamboo fibers. It is in the main shrine where monks recite their chants and where all religious functions take place. Their chanting is hypnotizing, it is a non-stop vocal exercise where monks sing in groups so that when one group stops to breathe, the next group picks up and carries the chant so that the continuity is never broken. I recommend warmly to go and listen to it, it is calming and relaxing.
There are tens of other small pavilions around the temple’s ground, and within the premises are also the buildings where monks live. To me, other than the main shrine, the most fascinating thing is crossing the long corridors that connect the various parts of the monks residence buildings. The fascinating part is that the floor of the corridors is wood, and it is so smooth and shiny that when a monk walks there, he seems to be floating above a mirror. Many times, I don’t even notice them walking, because they are as silent as ghosts.
Behind the main shrine there’s a cemetery where a few famous Japanese people are buried. I honestly wouldn’t know who they were or where in the cemetery their grave is, but if you want you can do some research about it.
In addition to the many smaller shrines and pavilions, there are also monuments here and there scattered around the temple’s ground.
One of them is a nice statue of the Kannon goddess of mercy, that was installed to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of the temple. That’s a very nice one, coated in silver and put on a semi-hidden spot, so that if people want to pay homage to the goddess, they can do it with privacy.
Finally, the bell pavilion is located on higher grounds, a very quiet and solitary tiny hill that can be reached by climbing a few stair steps. That’s a very very nice corner of the temple, I often go and sit at one of the benches there and spend a few minutes in contemplation of nature.
All together, many different kinds of trees and flowers can be seen, so that during the year’s seasons there is something to admire. Right now the gingko leaves cover the ground, making everything look like gold. Very often, students can be spotted around. Just beside the temple sacred grounds there is in fact a high school and a university, also belonging to Soji-ji.
The closest train station to Soji-ji temple is Tsurumi, on the JR Keihin-Tohoku line. From the station’s west exit, the temple entrance is just 5 minutes by walk.
Although Soji-ji might not be on a conventional must-see list, I recommend a visit. It is worthwhile, and not just for the Hatsumode practice on New Year’s.