Austere monks in a lavish monastery


It seems at first that they are not of this world, these monks living out their lives of mountain seclusion. They glide purposefully — as if on some devout mission from on high — through the monastery corridors. At times, they flit by at great speed, their black tunics and dark blue robes swishing as they pass, pausing only briefly to bow reverently in the direction of the Buddha Hall. It comes as a surprise then, when for the first time you see them acting like normal people, laughing and joking among themselves after the morning service, rather than gazing off profoundly into some middle distance.

Since 1244, after its founding by the philosopher-monk Dogen Kigen (1200-1253), there has stood deep in the mountains of Fukui Prefecture a Buddhist temple and monastery originally called Daibutsu-ji Temple, now known as Eihei-ji Temple. Located some 20 km east of the city of Fukui, Eihei-ji is the best reason (pretty much the only reason, some might say) for visiting that prefecture. As a place for living the contemplative life, Eihei-ji certainly has great physical beauty: The temple stands among boulders thick with bright green moss, cedars of great girth, and Japanese maples that, in autumn, are a riot of cinnabar red and spectacular gold.

Eihei-ji is one of the two chief temples of the Soto sect of Zen, and the place is renowned for its rigor. Visitors run into this discipline upon admission to the temple, when a monk gives them a detailed explanation of monastic dos and don’ts. Lest they forget, visitors also receive a printed list of the rules. Should they transgress — as I somehow seemed to find myself doing constantly on my day trip here — the monks quite cheerfully give them a good telling-off.

Those familiar with Buddhism will know that the concept of detachment is integral to the Four Noble Truths. And Eihei-ji visitors get to appreciate something of this notion as the temple tries to detach them from their money. You pay to get in, you are invited to make contributions and the big temple shop does a roaring trade in amulets and whatnot. Zen monks they may be in Eihei-ji, but they sure know how to run a slick tourist enterprise that handles over 800,000 visitors a year.

In contrast to the austerity of the monks’ lives, Eihei-ji itself is not poor. As you walk around, it is hard not to smell the money in the air as well as the incense. The hatto (Dharma Hall) positively drips with gold. The magnificent ceiling of the sanshokaku (Reception Hall) is filled with 230 charming paintings of birds and flowers rendered by 144 of Japan’s leading contemporary artists; commissioning these must have cost a pretty penny. Built into the wall near the Dharma Hall, I noticed a 2-meter-high safe door, which was invitingly ajar. Curious as to what treasures might be lurking inside, I tried having a quick peek before being spotted and admonished, again, by a monk.

The temple is built into a mountainside and consists of a series of halls with interconnecting corridors. The place certainly has atmosphere. As you walk within this wooden complex, you hear the sound of gongs and the haunting sound of the sho (bamboo mouth organ) rising above the rippling sound of the streams that run down the mountain. You also hear the voices of the assembled monks chanting sutras, which are impressively resonant, though I failed to understand even a word of what they were saying.

Around 200 monks live out their regulated lives in Eihei-ji. Every five days, they shave their heads and take a bath. Three times a day, the great Brahman bell sounds to announce the times for zazen. Visitors are not allowed inside the sodo (the priests’ hall) where each trainee has his own tatami mat on which he eats, sleeps and performs zazen. On a stand within the sodo are two sticks, which are used by monks to strike trainees who aren’t properly concentrating during zazen. And you get the impression that the monks wouldn’t be averse to trying the sticks out on a few of the tourists.

All visitors to Eihei-ji, as the rules carefully explain, are received as participants in religious training. Well, call me crass, call me spiritually bereft, but this particular participant in religious training found it oddly refreshing to leave the cloistered world of Zen and get back to the real world: people on mobile phones and shops filled with Hello Kitty souvenirs and back-scratchers in the small town below the temple. This is where the huge tour buses wheel into place and where visitors pass lines of souvenir shops on their way to the temple. Unlike the souvenir shops in other tourist towns, trying to sell their oddball knickknacks, the style here is subdued. The emphasis is more on pilgrim hats, noren with sutras, gold-lettered picture scrolls, frog-shaped gongs and neckties so miserably somber they could only be intended for the deceased.

As you might expect from a small mountain town, the eating options are basic. If you don’t care for soba, you may find yourself going rather hungry. When I asked the young woman at one soba shop what the local specialty was, she wasn’t really sure, but suggested I try the sansai-tororo soba — soba topped with grated yam and mountain vegetables. It was quite tasty, though not in itself the kind of thing to make you want to start planning that return trip to Fukui anytime soon.

Eihei-ji today welcomes not more than half the number of visitors it did a decade ago. The railway station that used to connect Eihei-ji with Fukui is abandoned. The place may well have lost something of its appeal for tourists, but for those in search of some small insight into the Spartan life of a Buddhist monk, this working monastery offers a chance like few others.