Temple Surfing in Japan

Shōganji Zen Retreat in Oita, Japan

Sitting with Jiho, the head monk, and other guests at the Shōganji Zen Retreat in Oita, Japan

When originally planning my trip to Japan I had wanted to stay in at least one temple while there. The thought of waking up before the crack of dawn for a Buddhist sermon seemed both peaceful and poetic in some sort of way.  I had heard that you could stay at various temples across Japan for not a lot of money.

Turns out temples are no longer a popular place to stay among the Japanese themselves.  Like Europeans with Catholicism, Japanese are slowly distancing themselves from Buddhism and Shintoism.  When talking with other Japanese it seemed like it was something “grandfathers” did and definitely not “cool.”  Fortunately for us travelers Temples have recognized this decline and now welcome foreigners as usually we are their only source of income!

Ninna-Ji in Kyoto, Japan

Our dinner at Omuro Kaikan Hall, Ninna-ji Temple in Kyoto

The food at Omuro Kaikan, the dining hall of Ninna-ji, was simply amazing

Temples in Japan are an inexpensive way to experience a entirely different culture and side of Japan. In Kyoto for instance we were able to stay at a well respected temple, Ninna-ji, for less then $100/night per person which included both breakfast and dinner.

The meals at Nina-ji, for instance, was really, really good.  They offer traditional home cooking for Kyoto which incorporates both fish and vegetables (The food is not shōjin ryōri, or traditional Buddhist vegetarian cuisine).  The menu was pre-set for both breakfast and dinner which made choosing what to eat much easier.  I got to try things I would not know how to order on my own.  The restaurant at Nina-ji is open for lunch so even if you are not staying at the temple you can try the delicious food for yourself!

Relaxing in our room at Ninna-ji in Kyoto, Japan

The atmosphere at Ninna-ji was relaxing.  A perfect way to unwind after a few hard days of travel.

The grounds at Nina-ji were beautiful.  Because they close the gates at night staying at the temple lodge can be quite peaceful.  The accommodations are traditional, meaning you sleep on mats on the floor, but don’t let that discourage you.  It was a very restful night of sleep!

The next morning we awoke to attend the morning service with the monks in Kon-do, the main temple hall.  Originally built in 1613, Kon-do served as a hall for state ceremonies at the imperial palace in Kyoto and was relocated to the temple grounds shortly after to help with rebuilding efforts of Ninna-ji.  As the oldest building of its style still in existence today, Kon-do has been designated a national treasure of Japan.  Needless to say it was inspiring to sit and listen to the ceremony and something only visitors can experience.

The next day we were given free range to explore the grounds before they were open to the public.  In addition guests are given a free ticket to see Goten, the palace on the grounds.  I enjoyed my stat at Ninna-ji and would recommend it for anyone traveling to Kyoto.  One night was plenty for us to experience everything the temple had to offer.

(More info on Staying at Ninna-ji here)

Shōganji Zen Retreat in Oita, Japan

Statue at Shōganji Zen RetreatI arrived at the small, rural train station in the south of Japan with no idea what to expect.  I was here to stay at the Shōganji Zen Retreat and other then some email correspondence with Pierre, the coordinator, I honestly didn’t even know who was picking me up or what my plans for my stay were.

Shortly after arriving a car comes zooming around the corner.  Noticing the driver was bald and wearing robes, I soon realized it was my ride.  After brief, informal introductions I learn that Jiho is running behind and asks if I don’t mind helping him perform an Obon ceremony for one of his temple members.  Nodding in agreement, I quickly learn that staying with Jiho was going to be a unique experience.

Shōganji Zen Retreat is led by Jiho Kongo, a graduate of the strict Rinzai Buddhist monastery Shogen-ji, who has been practicing Zen Buddhism for over 30 years.  Shōgan-ji was created by Jiho to share the experience of Zen temple life to foreign visitors.  As an active temple in the small village of Ojuki (which is in the Ōita Prefecture), Jiho offers a broad range of temple life – from accompanying him on house visits of temple members to morning prayer.  In addition to these experience we helped with chores around the temple, practiced kanji, and had time to meditate and study among ourselves.

Practicing Kanji at the Shōganji Zen Retreat

Practicing Kanji one afternoon at the Shōganji Zen Retreat

With barely enough time to unpack my bag and meet the other temple residents (an Aussie and a Canadian for those curious) we head off to the ceremony.

Odon is a yearly celebration of a persons ancestors and has been celebrated in Japan for more than 500 years.  We were at this persons home to celebrate her father who was a former military officer in the Japanese Imperial Army during WWII.  It’s impossible to describe the feeling I got from listening to Jiho chant and looking around the room at this families artifacts, some looking like they dated back to the days of the Samurai.

I stayed at Shōganji for several days and it gave me a chance to reflect on my Japanese experience to date.  It was the perfect amount of time to befriend my other temple mates and really take in the experience of living life as a monk.

Gardening at Shōganji Zen Retreat

The residents of Ojuki help Jiho with his garden at the temple. Because we were staying there, that meant us too.

Staying at the temple was not easy by any means.  We were woken at 5:30am each morning for prayer and meditation.  This was followed by reading and  … no breakfast!

Jiho is a strong believer in the Nishi-Shiki Health System, a health methodology created by Katsuzo Nishi in 1927.  Katsuzo created the Nishi-Shiki system to alleviate some of his own health concerns growing up and was later adopted by followers of Akido.

Among some of the beliefs of the Nishi-Shiki system are skipping breakfast and and eating raw vegetables.  Jiho’s mother was a follower of the Nishi System and well into her 90’s (and still feisty and healthy) so maybe he is on to something.

Eating izakaya with Jiho during one of our "excursions"

Eating izakaya with Jiho during one of our “excursions.”

After the morning rest we would typically clean around the temple or help in the garden and then help prepare (and eat!) lunch. Afternoons were spent studying or on “field trips” to a local hot springs or, in one instance, the grocery store.  Staying at the temple was surreal in a way.  It’s the first time in my travels where I felt I was actually living and not touring.  Jiho’s calm, zen mentality added a entirely new dynamic to the stay as well.

Because of the early mornings the evenings were for relaxing.  Finding out his mom was a rabid Osaka Tigers baseball fan (In fact the only two English words she knew were “Thank You” and “Baseball!”), I would sometimes spend my nights with his mom, a beer, and a Japanese-to-English baseball dictionary.  She strangely reminded me of my own grandmother, who is a fanatic Tennessee Volunteers fan!

Spending time with Jiho and staying at the Shōganji Zen Retreat was rewarding.  While it was not exactly what I had in mind, the experience ended up being more than worth the effort and time it took to reach his temple.  I wouldn’t hesitate visiting him again!

(More information about staying at the Shōganji Zen Retreat can be found here.)

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