Tranquility reigns at Kyoto’s Miyoshinji Temple

Visitors learn the ways and lessons of the Buddhist monks

The path of philosophy offers moments of solitude.

The path of philosophy offers moments of solitude.

KYOTO, JAPAN–It is daybreak and Miyoshinji Temple’s gongs are being rung, the first sounds you have heard in the past eight hours. Lines of monks rustle past, venturing out to a ceremony. Unlike Kyoto’s more renowned temples that have become attractions, Miyoshinji Temple carries on as a Zen Buddhist temple and monastery, housing monks and pilgrims as it has for centuries.

Even though Miyoshinji stands in the heart of Kyoto, it occupies its own domain composed of several sub-temples, each with its own order, group of monks and protocol.

Just the facts

For the “Zen Experience” 8000 yen ($95 Cdn.) including calligraphy instruction, tea ceremony and snack, plus a sumptuous vegetarian temple cuisine lunch at Taizoin go to www.taizoin.com or call 075-463-2855 and ask for Monk Matsuyama.

SHUNKOIN TEMPLE stay or “shukubo,” as it is known in Japan, is one of the most affordable places in town, particularly when you use the kitchen to prepare your meals. Rooms start at 4000 yen ($47.50 Cdn.) per night; go to www.shunkoin.com or call 075-462-5488 and ask for Monk Kawakami. Both Shunkoin and Taizoin are within Myoshinji Temple compound, a 10-minute walk from JR Hanazono Station in Kyoto.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION, visit JNTO (Japan National Tourism Organization) online at www.jnto.go.jp and select “Kyoto.” The Kyoto branch office of JNTO, called TIC or Tourism Information Center, has a booth on the second floor of Kyoto Station. For city bus and subway information go to www.city.kyoto.jp.

– John Lander

Though UNESCO World Heritage temples and gardens are a short bicycle ride away, Miyoshinji Temple eschews tour bus groups, sticking to its Zen-like simplicity and tranquility. Known for its history of hospitality, two of the sub-temples welcome both Japanese and foreign visitors as guests. Taizoin offers regular “Zen Experience” sessions meant to introduce Japanese culture to foreign visitors.

Monk Matsuyama guides you through a meditation session, jokingly brandishing the cane used to smack novice monks who fell asleep during meditation back in his day. Don’t worry, he will gently nudge you awake should you nod off.

Zen Buddhism makes much of meditation as a practice although this can take various forms, such as the preparation of tea or even tending the garden. Zen is also a philosophy and a way of life with an emphasis on simplicity or in other words, as Matsuyama would have it, everyday life lived with awareness. Through meditation we can detach ourselves from the world, albeit briefly. That’s a treat for those of us wishing for a virtual get-away-from-it-all experience.

After meditating it’s time for some calligraphy, where you get the chance to make your own scroll as a keepsake. Calligraphy in Japan is also considered a form of meditation without the strict silence, though it does involve concentration. During the calligraphy session silence is unknown, especially by participants who have just spoiled yet another sheet of paper.

Calligraphy is followed by a short tour of Taizoin’s Zen garden. Japan’s most renowned gardens, such as Ryoanji and Tenryuji, were all designed by monks. Their care and maintenance have always been considered a form of meditation, not mere gardening.

After a busy morning, it’s time for the grande finale. Shojin ryori, literally “devotion cuisine”, is simple vegetarian temple cuisine. The subtle and complex flavours, colours and presentation of the food makes up for any lack of meat. A tiny saucer of pickles, a delicate basket of tempura, a lacquer bowl of soup, tofu arranged on rectangular plates. The ceramics, not to mention the foods they hold, are so beautifully presented it feels almost sacrilegious to eat.

Guests who want the full-on Zen experience can stay overnight at neighbouring Shunkoin Temple, with its long history of hosting pilgrims and travellers. Monk Kawakami maintains this tradition and is accustomed to visitors from many lands and faiths who come to learn about Japanese culture and Kyoto’s long history.

Visitors have the rare opportunity to learn as much about Zen Buddhism as they like. Others just come for the most affordable accommodations in town, but Shunkoin welcomes all and you’ll feel at home if you don’t mind sleeping on the floor on a futon.

At a temple stay you won’t be able to order a cheeseburger from room service but, after all, you didn’t come to Kyoto to munch on fast food. What you will get here is the chance to mingle with Japanese in a friendly atmosphere, learn about Japan and Zen Buddhism and interact with other travellers – a real plus for those who may feel isolated in even a small boutique hotel.

John Lander is a Tokyo-based writer.

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