Different. I have written about many fantastic places in Japan on this blog, but my trip to Eiheiji Temple, which is one of the biggest zen temples in Japan, was different from any other.
I don’t think many of you plan to visit there because ordinary travel guidebooks spare only one page or less for it. Moreover, Eiheiji Temple is located in the mountains in Fukui Prefecture – can you imagine where it is? Then, it’s time for a travel blog to take you to a virtual trip!
And at the same time, just as I’ve been doing for years on my Tokyo Direct Guide project, I’m summarizing up the practical guide for those who want different experiences from other tourists.
To go or not, I’d like to share my precious trip to the leading zen temple in the woods. Hope you enjoy it!
All About Eiheiji Temple
Eiheiji Temple was founded by Dogen, who started Soto Zen sect, in 1244. Dogen was a genius zen master who studied Buddhism in China, came back to Japan, established a new temple in Kyoto and moved to Echizen (today’s Fukui Prefecture) to found the head temple in the support of the powerful samurai. Eiheiji Temple has been a zen dojo (place for monastic practice) for Buddhist priests since the 13th century. Around 200 monks are leading their monastic life today.
…The above is a guidebook-like explanation about Eiheiji Temple. And this is an article by ME, who is a Tokyo local blogger, so I’d like to add some comments of my own.
First, I point out that Dogen is on every history textbook for Japanese students. He is an important person in the history and his influence still goes on in Japanese culture of today.
Second, where is Fukui exactly? Actually, it is the neighboring prefecture to Kyoto. When you hear so, you might try to add this zen temple to your Kyoto travel schedule. Then, remember that Eiheiji Temple is a zen dojo in the mountains! Although it’s much easier for us to go there in the 21st century than the 13th century, I think a day trip from Kyoto is pretty hard.
Third, keep good manners in Eiheij Temple. Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines have been popular sightseeing spots in Japan, so we travelers are excited, pose to take good travel pictures and say “Wow!” to amazing artworks in those places. But Eiheiji Temple is DIFFERENT since it’s a zen dojo that must be quiet. The good manners the temple suggests to us are…
- Don’t step into off-limits (I found many “Don’t Enter” signs inside the temple building.).
- Don’t take photos of the priests and their sessions (IMPORTANT!). Don’t use camera flash.
- Don’t smoke.
- Don’t touch drums and artworks.
- Don’t be noisy. Turn your cellphone into the manner mode.
And I have one more advice for you – check out your socks. You’ll put off your shoes in the temple building, so warm clean socks without any hole will help you to avoid annoying situations!
As far as I see it, super tourist looks and behaviors are embarrassing there… I mean it’s not a place for visitors to wear an aloha shirt and shorts, lean on old pillars and pop the shutter thousands of times. I don’t think we need to be too nervous, but we should understand what Eiheiji Temple is for. The manner is simple – just be respectful.
Now you are ready, right? Let’s go!
My Trip to Eiheiji Temple
I woke up in the hotel near Fukui Station early in the morning and got on the bus at 8:45. I wasn’t very sure how Eiheiji Temple would be like because my Hokuriku Region guidebook had 150 pages but spared only one page for it… Is it a large temple to walk a lot to see many things? Or is it a rural town without interesting things that travel guidebooks mention to? Is the temple a tourist spot or a super strict dojo? I was wondering in the seat.
Once the bus left Fukui City, what I saw were local houses in local streets instead of buildings. The views from the window became greener and greener. Getting through some tunnels, the bus finally stopped in 30 minutes.
Fortunately, the weather went against the weather forecast – it didn’t rain at all during my trip. Eiheiji Town is a small town for the temple. Some people run restaurants for visitors, some open souvenir shops and others are making foods for priests living in the temple.
It was just three minutes walk. This is the entrance of Eiheiji Temple, the head temple of Soto Zen sect!
Looking up, trees are so tall and…
The gate was wide and solemn. This is the zen temple lasting since 1244.
Eiheiji Temple is in the real nature, but I didn’t feel any untouched, abandoned, deserted atmospheres. I learned the reason later.
There is a stream in the temple, so when you read this article, please turn on songs of the natural water, birds and insects in your mind.
I arrived at the temple building to enter soon.
I remember that I walked a log to see many buildings – from small ones to big halls – in Chusonji Temple in Hiraizumi, so I imagined my trip would be like that. But Eiheiji Temple was different. What we visitors see is only this building.
We follow the route inside the building. Normally, temples and shrines are free to go around, but I felt Eiheiji Temple was different in this point again. I think it’s the precise description for Eiheiji Temple that part of the temple is open to visitors. Priests are living there, leading their own daily lives, pursuing the zen lessons every other day, and welcome visitors who want to see the temple to some areas of the temple.
I said that this was not a tourist spot to shout, “Wow!” to amazing artworks, but there are amazing artworks there!
When we start the self tour, we enter the big hall of Japanese style, whose ceiling is full of Japanese paintings.
The 230 beautiful paintings were painted by 144 famous Japanese artists in 1930.
It was just impressive to me. If I can choose a must-see in Enheiji Temple as people in tourism do, I think this is it.
San-mon Gate & the Bell
When we go along the route, we arrive at a place with the courtyard. This is San-mon (meaning, “gate to the mountains”), which new monks go through to start their monastic life in Eiheiji Temple.
And we find the belfry there… although it’s an off-limit. If you want to toll the bell, don’t worry, we have the chance later.
If you have visited Japan, you may say, “It’s common that there is a bell in a temple.” But did you know that this bell is particularly well-known to Japanese people? Every 31 December night, Eiheiji Temple is broadcast on the new year welcoming TV program. People see priests tolling this bell, and that’s why Japanese visitors say, “Oh, this is it!” to find it.
7 Things to See in Eiheiji Temple?
According to the leaflet, there are 7 things to see in Eiheiji Temple. San-mon Gate is one of them. The others are three Buddhist halls, one house, toilets and bathroom for priests.
But again, they are different from “must-sees” in tourism. Do you remember the visitors’ manners? When priests’ daily session is ongoing, common visitors mustn’t enter the hall with No Photo policy! It depends on the priests’ schedule whether we can see the halls or not, so it’s very highly possible you’ll miss some of the 7 things. But I’m not saying it’s disappointing – that’s the travel experience here. Eiheiji Temple is not a place to take a must-see check list, but a dojo we can see some parts of zen life.
The wooden corridors and stairs are like this. You’ll understand why I told you to be careful of your socks!
Honestly, it was pretty hard to go up and down all the time. There were kindly anti-slip tapes on each stair, but be aware of your footsteps.
When you go up to Butsuden Hall, you can see the views from the temple. Again I was impressed by the difference from the other temples I’ve visited in my life. It’s really, truly, simply all mountains!
Buddha statues are enshrined in the halls for the sessions, but I found that they are just small without anything special.
I’ve shared many special things to see in Buddhist temples on this blog with you. For example, when you look up at the Great Buddha in Kamakura, anyone will shout, “Wow, it’s so big!” But it’s different again. And you’ve learned the reason. Eiheiji Temple is a zen dojo that is mainly for priests living there, not to appeal to common visitors.
Blogs can’t deliver sounds to you. Please keep imagining that you hear songs of the stream and insects all the time. It was really a beautiful place.
I don’t have photos of all of the 7 things to see. Priests were having their daily sessions in some of the halls, so I couldn’t take photos. When you visit Eiheiji Temple, it will happen to you, too.
I think the most brilliant hall of the temple is this.
It is not so big, but golden. And there is the huge juzu (beads like a rosary) on the wall.
If I pick up interesting things to see, I think they are the bathroom and toilets for the priests.
In Eiheiji Temple, everything is considered to be zen lessons for the priests. There are strict manners even about their bath time and toilet! We can see some pieces of their lifestyle from the outside. (Don’t worry, they have prepared normal clean toilets for common visitors!)
While I was advancing the visitor’s route, I came across many priests in the corridors. It’s a zen dojo in the mountains, so I thought it’d be a separated place from our daily lives. After my visit, I don’t think so any longer. The zen priests are living in the temple. They are leading their “daily lives” there.
Things to See along the Stream
When you finish seeing the temple buildings and the museum, let’s go out and walk along the stream.
In the plain but beautiful garden, there is the statue of Dogen, the founder of Eiheiji Temple.
It’s his childhood when he made up his mind to become a priest.
And across from the statue, this is the bell for common visitors to toll freely.
There are also monuments of important people of the temple history.
I said that the ground of Eiheiji Temple was so green but not just untouched deserted nature. Now I know why. Priests clean it up in their every day life. They are not professional cleaners in the cleaning business, but they tidy up their place in the mountains to live.
Priests’ life in Eiheiji Temple looks very different from our daily lives. Who have strict rules and fixed manners about your bath time??
In fact, their life is not so different from our daily lives. Lead a sincere life – that’s the Zen thought.
Souvenir Advice of Eiheiji Town
I had one more surprise there; Eiheiji Temple didn’t sell souvenirs. In Japan, temples and shrines normally sell charms and people typically get them as souvenirs. But you see, it’s a zen dojo.
In that case, there are souvenir shops in the street – that’s a Japanese tradition, too.
First, I entered a restaurant to have a lunch. Japanese noodle (soba) is anywhere in Japan, especially in traditional sightseeing spots, but this is the original style of Echizen district that they put grated radish and pour the soup directly.
It was good. I once told you that I got so disappointed at the Japanese noodle in a famous tourist spot in Japan, but the Echizen style was good.
Also, I advise you to order a “goma-tofu”, which is made from plenty of sesame seeds, in Eiheiji Town. Did you know? Goma-tofu is a traditional food for priests and some restaurants in Eiheiji Town make them for Eiheiji Temple! We can bite a bit of the zen life, right?
Goma-tofu is an interesting food. It’s a little sweet, but different from sugar. It’s softer than rice dumplings and harder than pastes. I LOVE it. In case you wonder if you try it or not, just remember it is made from sesame beans; at least it won’t taste dangerous.
So I talked about delicious foods first, but beautiful things are important for travel memories, too.
Echizen (today’s Fukui Prefecture) is traditionally famous for pottery, Japanese lacquer bowls and Japanese paper. When you visit there, I advise you to get them.
And do you see so many owls in the photo? I’m not very sure, but Fukui locals love owls so much because “owl” is “fukurou” in Japanese… I’d got Echizen dishes and bowls at Fukui Station, so I took an owl from Eiheiji Town. I’m typing this article with patting my wooden owl who came home together.
Remembering My Trip to Eiheiji Temple
Different. I’ve visited so many places in my life, and this trip was different from any other.
Eiheiji Temple is not an exciting sightseeing spot like Sensoji Temple in Tokyo, which has been loved by Japanese people for hundreds of years. It is not like famous temples with beautiful gardens in Kyoto. It is not a hiking trail to explore the nature like Yakuoin Temple in Tokyo, either.
Talking about travels, we imagine beautiful beaches at first, don’t we? I have enjoyed some resort holidays. I also have been to many historical spots to explore the culture. I love skyscrapers and fashionable streets to follow the latest trends, too. Or, I hear that some travelers hope to visit a nameless rural town that will never appear on guidebooks. Are you one of them? These adventurers feel the “real life” in a nameless town without anything special. I said Eiheiji Temple doesn’t have special things to see, but it is completely different from “adventures” like that.
There is something. That’s the head temple of Zen culture.
It was a good trip. Fukui was so charming with its delicious seafood, traditional crafts and historical places. Hope you enjoyed the virtual trip to the Zen temple in the mountains!
Practical Guide of Eiheiji Temple
Visitor Information of Eiheiji Temple
Opening Hours: 8:30 – 17:00 (Enter by 16:30)
Admission Fee: 500 yen for adult, 200 yen for children and handicapped people
How to Get to Eiheiji Temple
I strongly advise you to go there by Eiheiji Liner Bus by Kyofuku Railway that departs from Fukui Station East Exit once an hour. It’s faster, less expensive and easier than other ways.
750 yen (adult) / 360 yen (child) for a single ticket. The return ticket is sold at the shop near the bus stop. It’s a 30 minutes ride.
The first bus to Eiheiji Temple starts at 8:45 and the last at 14:50. The last return bus starts at 16:20.
How to Get to Fukui
From Tokyo: Take a Hokuriku Shinkansen (Kagayaki) train to Kanazawa and change trains into the super express Thunderbird via Osaka. 3 hours 30 minutes to Fukui.
From Kyoto & Osaka: Take a Thunderbird train via Kanazawa to Fukui. 2 hours from Osaka, 1 hour 30 minutes from Kyoto.
From Nagoya: Take the super express Shirasagi. 2 hour 10 minutes to Fukui.
There are some hotels that are just several minutes walk from Fukui Station.
I was just a common traveler who booked a hotel in Fukui City, but Eiheiji Temple offers the overnight programs to experience the zen priests’ life. In case you are interested in them, please go to their official website to check out what are included, conditions, language problems, etc.