If you want to glimpse life that has not changed much in eight centuries, Eiheiji temple in the mountains just outside Fukui city in central Japan is the place to find it.
Just mind the monk with the stick, who may tap you with it if you fail to meditate.
Isolated from other parts of quiet Eiheiji town on Japan’s western coast, the complex of more than 70 buildings stands on a hill among a thick forest of tall cedar trees.
The temple, established by the Buddhist monk Dogen in 1244, is an active monastery where about 150 monks are in training. They follow the Soto Zen School’s traditional, simple ways of living and are happy to welcome you to join them.
Visitors can tour the temple for a day or stay there overnight as Eiheiji provides lodging, including two meals and the chance for zazen meditation and the reading of Buddhist scripture.
The charge is 8,000 yen ($65) per person for an overnight stay with two meals. Reservations are required, particularly for non-Japanese speakers who must reserve well in advance so the temple can secure an English-speaking monk to attend them.
The black-garbed monks welcome you at the entrance of the complex and give a brief lecture on the temple and their life.
When they move from building to building, the monks form two lines and walk side by side.
At mealtimes, you can smell food as the monks carry their meals from the kitchen building, called “daikuin”, to their training quarters called “sodo”. A monk lets his colleagues know the food is ready by ringing a bell that is actually a large piece of wood curved in the shape of a fish.
Monks keep their own lacquered dishes and cutlery. Their founding monk Dogen did not allow his followers to waste water, so after each meal, they rinse the bowls with hot water, drink the water and clean the bowls with a cloth-topped stick.
Meals are all vegetarian dishes known as “shojin ryori”, derived from the dietary restrictions of Buddhist monks. The meal is served in a set of five lacquer bowls in different sizes that can be stacked together when not in use.
The day’s dinner may consist of a bowl of rice and miso soup, along with stewed vegetable and fried tofu, daikon and carrots marinated in vinegar as well as a dish with eggplants marinated with sesame.
Eiheiji’s special sesame (goma) tofu, something like pudding made from sesame paste, water and kuzu power, is also served.
Visitors who stay overnight eat the same meal as the monks but during the meal, they are not allowed to talk or make sounds. When you finish, tea is poured into your cup and you dip chopsticks in it to wash them. You will use the same chopsticks for breakfast.
Visitors stay in a modern building, called “kichijokaku” and are given a room with tatami mats with a futon and a table, but there are no amenities like television sets or mini-bars.
After a dinner that ends before 6 p.m., visitors may take part in zazen. For this you sit with crossed legs on a “zafu”, or cushion, while you look down at the floor at a 45-degree angle, take a deep and slow breath and meditate.
You face the wall when you take part in Soto School’s zazen. If you cannot concentrate, a monk walking around could hit your shoulder with a wooden stick called a “kyosaku”.
In the morning visitors may join the reading of scripture that starts a little before 4 a.m. The sun emerges in the quietness of the temple and trees gradually gleam with light. The whole experience ends after breakfast.