The Charms of Eiheiji in a nutshell
Eiheiji in Fukui Prefecture, a well-noted Buddhist temple.
A step into its compound readily fills you with a solemn and tranquil air that sets your spine upright.
The liveliest of all the charms of Eiheiji is that very sense of serene airiness.
In the temple grounds are enormous Sugi, Japanese cedars, over 700 years old growing amid a fluffy carpet of green mosses.
The sunrays flow through the Sugi leaves onto rows of stone images of Buddha.
Strolling along the steam drifting within the grounds,
one would feel all those day-to-day distractions meticulously fade away Buddha knows where – relieving you of worries.
Look at those buildings all around you with the floors, pillars, and all so neatly cleansed daily;
enjoy the interiors so comfortably subdued to deafen you off the sounds of modern civilization.
Amid tranquility so created go the monks fast walking by as if flying in the air.
Standing in the midst of such an environment created by buildings and men,
you are sure to experience an invaluable moment of welcome tension of both body and soul.
Time ticks slow at Eiheiji.
If you look around the temple grounds attentively, do take over one hour – or half an hour to briefly stroll about.
So, do allow yourself more than enough time to feel out the best of Zen in Japan.
What is Eiheiji to begin with?
Eiheiji is one of the two main temples of the c school of Buddhism (the other being Sōjiji in Yokohama).
It is the central figure of worship of some 15,000 Sōtō temples, located in the woods approximately 10km east of Fukui City, Fukui Prefecture.
The temple was founded in 1244 by Dōgen Zenji (Reverend) as a Zazen training monastery of monks and was renamed two years later as Eiheiji.
Thereafter, some 770 years, Eiheiji is still today the home of about 140 monks called Unsui passing day after day in rigorous training.
The Sōtō school of Buddhism is one of the Zen sects of Buddhism built on Zazen and Gyōjū-Zaga.
Gyōjū-Zaga stands for a walk, halt, sit and lie, meaning living itself.
It’s an act to seek the peace of mind through Zazen and living.
The temple was built deep in the midst of woods as far away from Kyoto, the then heart of civilization, as the secular world.
Shichidō Garan linked by a single corridor
Visitors to Eiheiji are led to the approach through the side gate to enter and stroll in the temple grounds.
Shichidō Garan, or seven buildings, is the center of Eiheiji comprising Hattō, Butsuden, Sōdō, Sanmon, Tousu, and Yokushitsu.
Garan means building.
Shichidō Garan is said to portray a man practicing Zazen.
Butsuden, where the central figure Buddha is enshrined, is the heart, and Hattō, or Hondo in the other temples, symbolizes the head.
Shichidō Garan is linked up with a single corridor and the visitors may stroll the route on rainy days without worries.
Of the temples of Shichidō Garan, the three, namely Sōdō, Tousu, and Yokushitsu,
are called Sanmoku Dōjō or three training halls of tranquility where the monks are prohibited from talking privately.
Before Field Trip: Let us honor the prescribed manners
Visitors are to enter the temple grounds through the side gate.
Before visiting, cleanse your hands at Chouzusha or purification trough.
You are expected to cleanse yourself before entering a sacred place.
Cleaning your body is believed to cleanse the world itself – an essentially vital manner.
Having cleansed yourself at Chouzusha, you are walk through the side gate on to pay the visiting fee.
Inside the side gate is Kichijōkaku.
Here, visitors are welcome to experience training in the building.
In a chamber within, you have a round of explanation on worshiping.
Then, you proceed through a long staircase up to Sōdō where the Unsui, monks, are trained.
On you go from there to Butsuden, the center of Shichidō Garan,
and follow the guide through the middle of the hall to Shōyōden, the most sacred of buildings.
Go straight the route you’ve come from to Hattō, the most elevated part of Shichidō Garan.
From Hattō to Daikoin, the kitchen, and over the long staircase to Yokushitsu.
Turning the corner of Yokushitsu, you get to Sanmon, the last temple of Shichido Garan.
Here and there in the buildings are places where you are not allowed to step in.
Sōdō, the monastery for training, is OK to pass by but not to step in.
On certain occasions, you are not allowed to take pictures, much less to step inside.
You are instructed such details at the aforementioned round of explanation on worshiping.
Do take note of such details then.
At Kichijōkaku, the temple you’ve entered first, you’ll have another round of explanation on the routing of worship by the Unsui in charge.
On certain days picture-taking is not allowed at certain places.
Please beware of the prescribed rules:
- Keep the left within the temple grounds.
- Do not take pictures of the monks.
- Never touch gongs and drums.
Do not step out the corridor.
- Do not enter intoxicated.
- If possible, take off your hats when worshiping.
There are also other points you’d do well observing as public manners:
- Set your mobile phone either off or turned in the manner mode.
- Refrain from smoking within the Eiheiji temple grounds.
- No flash photography.
Abide by the monk’s instructions.
Keep in mind at all times that Eiheiji is a place of training for the Unsuis, the monks undergoing Zen training,
and behave so as not to make yourself a nuisance to them.
Points worthy of note within the temples
First to attract your attention is Sanshōkaku built in the year 1930.
It is otherwise called Tenjōe-no-Ōhiroma or Hall of Ceiling Pictures, not included in Shichidō Garan.
The first floor is an anteroom and training space for the visitors; the second floor a 156-jo (mat) Ōhiroma or grand hall.
Step in the tatami hall and look up, and you’ll pictures painted all over the ceiling
– a total of 230 pictures done in 1930 by the then reputed 144 artists in Japan.
If you have time enough, do study each one of them – amazing you’ll be looking up at them with no sign of pain on the neck.
Among them are five paintings other than of Kachō Fugetsu (flowers, birds, the wind and the moon).
You might like to try locating them. It could be fun.
Past Sanshōkaku, you pass by Tousu and then Sōdō.
Tousu is a washroom.
By the way, visitors can use this washroom.
It looks somewhat seasoned but the basins are water-flushed - mostly Japanese-style but some are western-style for your comfort.
Sōdō is the place where the monks dine, sleep and practice Zen.
It's also called Undo as the monks train there.
Visitors are forbidden to enter here.
The monks are each offered a space of one tatami whereon to practice Zen, dine and sleep.
While you worship you are bound to meet the Monks dressed in Hōi and Samue moving past you in so attractive a fashion as to tempt you to gaze in admiration.
But then, however attractive they may seem, never attempt to take pictures of them.
Bear this fast in mind.
Now, you've come to the heart of Shichidō Garan - Butsuden.
Butsuden enshrines the principal image Shakamuni-butsu, to the left of whom sits Kako-Amida-butsu and to the right Mirai Miroku-butsu,
thus symbolizing the three tenses - present, past and future.
Butsuden has its own regulations on photography that forbid taking pictures on certain days.
So, be sure to take note.
Past Butsuden you head for Jōyōden, the holiest of all temples of Shichidō Garan.
Jōyōden is the grave of Master Dōgen, also enshrining the mortuary tablets of successive chief priests of Eiheiji.
Here again, visitors are now allowed to enter.
Magnificent carvings await here for you to admire.
Look at the Dragon at the entrance.
So powerful that it seems almost ready to move a step forward.
The temples of Shichidō Garan are loaded with carvings and transoms to tempt you.
Why not locate ones you really love?
It's one way of appreciating the charms of visiting Eiheiji.
Here, you've come the most elevated point of
Shichidō Garan: Hattō.
Kannon Sama is enshrined here where morning and Buddhist services are held.
When services are in progress, you are often prohibited from taking pictures.
Please mark general announcements.
While gorgeous ornaments within may be eye-catching, the open verandah without is equally heart-warming.
Why not find yourself a momentary comfort out there?
Leaves changing colors in autumn is a mind-comforting sight to watch.
Daikuin is a kitchen.
In Sōtō Zen everyday life is itself a training; so is diet, hence cooking is done by Monks.
Regulations define where and how to place plates and the order whereby meals are consumed and how to position the chopsticks.
You must eat quietly without words; you must eat at a speed the others do.
When cooking, food, a precious source of life, must be used up without waste;
wherefrom one is said to learn the spirit of thrift not to waste even a single particle of rice.
You'll have a chance to find Idaten enshrined at the entrance of Daikuin as meals are delivered while warm to Sōdō or fire alarms are rapidly passed over.
At the far end of the hallway in Daikuin is a copper Unban in the shape of a cloud, a drum to announce when meals are ready.
A wooden Hangi on the wall of Sōdō serves the same purpose.
Isn’t it fun to find such a classic way of transmission practiced at Eiheiji in the modern era of smartphones.
Garan itself is no doubt great to watch but the sceneries outside the corridor are just as great.
While strolling, you’ll often pose to view elegant buildings and seasonal changes of the trees all around.
Past Yokushitsu on to Sanmon.
Sanmon is the front gate of Eiheiji built in 1749, the oldest structure in the grounds of Eiheiji.
A pair of Shitenno gaze down on you at both sides of the gate as if keeping a strict watch over evil souls entering the gate.
Sanmon is only for the chief priest to routinely pass and not accessible for visitors.
Even Monks pass the gate only twice – at initiation and departure.
Those wishing to train at Eiheiji queue up here for admission.
In other words, candidates are quizzed at the gate on the level of readiness.
At the entrance of Sanmon is hung a frame of words called Kichijōgaku.
Shobutu nyorai daikudoku
Sho kichijō saimujō
Shobutsu gurai nyushishō
Zeko shichi saikichijō
The phrases roughly mean:
“The grand blessings of Buddha and Nyoraisama are the most supreme of all fortunate omens.
Various buddhas have come father here, this place is hereby pronounced the most fortunate of all places.”
100 thousand-tsubo temple grounds so beautiful and full of nature
Past Shichidō Garan, you have a lot more to enjoy watching.
Out of the side gate, proceed to the left to see Karamon.
Amid rows of huge old Sugi, Japanese cedars,
there is a heavily mossed stone stairway stretching straight ahead to a gate decorated with a chrysanthemum emblem.
Karamon used to be opened only on the occasions of the royal families and chief abbots entering the temple.
Since 2016 onward, the gate is open on New Year’s eve.
Strolling along the Eiheiji River upstream, you’ll soon see beyond on your left a waterfall called Reirō-no-Taki.
The waterfall is fuller after rainfalls and the 15-meter waterfall creates a gorgeous world of heavy mists.
The sight comes handy to cool you off at the peak of hot seasons.
Further to your left is Jakkōen and farther beyond in the woods stretches a stairway leading to Mt. Atago for you to climb for pastime.
Some 30 minutes take you to Atago Kannondo at the top of the hill.
Along the approach stand in row 33 statues of Kanzeon Bosatsu.
On the way to the top you can enjoy a panoramic view of Shichidō Garan.
The hill is rather low but quite rugged here and there; you are advised to wear mountaineering boots – and a bell to keep off bears.
The grounds of Jakkōen are known to be the home of mamushi pit vipers – meaning you’ll do well avoiding sandals.
Seasonal Charms of Eeiheiji
The last time the writer visited Eiheiji was in the early stage of changing leaves.
Come November Eiheiji demonstrates a variety of colorful seasonal changes, red and yellow glowing amid the green of pines.
If you wish for the best of Eiheiji, do visit in November.
Not only strolling in the temple grounds, give it a try peeking at exterior views through the windows and half-opened doors along the corridor.
Eiheiji’s breath-taking seasonal charms are there for you to share.
Spring is the favorite season for Dōgen Zenji with abundant flowers blooming all around;
summer is the season of greenish trees growing; autumn is full of Momiji (crimson foliage); winter is a world of heavily set snow all over.
The best of seasons is autumn, of course, but Eiheiji in winter is also highly recommended.
White and snow symbolize coldness that highlights the serene airlines all around.
Lest you should freeze at your feet, you ought to come in warm garments.
Whichever seasons you may visit Eiheiji, the most attractive event is, by all means,
Chōka or morning service starting at 4:30 a.m. in May-Octover and 5:30 a.m. in November-April.
The monks reciting sutra in dramatic unison will dominate Hattō with an air of utter serenity and tension.
Should you care to observe Chōka, you should reserve ahead of time. Timing varies day to day,
you do well by indicating your wishes by 17:00 of the previous day via 0776-63-3102.
You will then be informed of the exact starting time.
On the very day you are to assemble at the reception 40 minutes before the start of Chōka.
Only those lodging in Fukui Prefecture are eligible to take part in the event for a Kenkō (incense-offering) fee of ¥1,000 or so.
Those of you coming by car should part at a coin-parking by Hanshakukyo (bridge) near Eiheiji.
The occasion starting at 8:30 a.m. affords you to view an Eiheiji otherwise unviewable.
You are advised to come to the first thing in the morning on regular days to give yourself plenty of time to look around.
You should come at the latest by 10:00 a.m. to have that feeling of tranquility Eiheiji is so reputed for.
The spiritual world of Zen opens right in front of you.
Do come visit Eiheiji for a unique space of tranquility filling thereat.