Isolated from the pulsating sounds of pachinko parlors and the neon lights of Tokyo, the small, laid-back city of Takayama in the mountains of Gifu Prefecture offers something that visitors to Japan’s urban hubs don’t typically find: quiet.
Caught in the bustle of the modern world, we often forget the impact that nature’s stillness can have on us — and that’s what makes a visit to Takayama so worthwhile. No, it’s not Mount Koya, the Buddhist retreat near Kyoto, but Takayama — a short weekend trip away from Tokyo — is an ideal destination for visitors wanting to experience the calm that comes from zazen (traditional seated meditation). Originating in India and arriving in Japan from China in the seventh century, zazen is still practiced in temples across Japan today.
There are a number of notable temples in Takayama, including the Unryuuji (“Cloud Dragon”) Temple and the renowned Hokkeji Temple, where devotees come to wash parts of a stone Buddha in the hope of healing ailments in the corresponding part of their own body. But only one place of worship accepts visitors for meditation: Zennoji.
Zennoji Temple is situated toward the end of the city’s scenic Higashiyama walking trail, an enchanting route through Takayama’s Teramachi (temple district). The walk passes intricately decorated Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, which sit side-by-side beneath majestic mountains. Though the route takes you through forested hills that are steep in parts, there’s plenty of opportunity to catch your breath in the grounds of these places of worship.
Arriving at Zennoji Temple, I am struck by the perfectly raked gravel outside and the symmetry of the stones by its entrance. The friendly wife of the head monk, Yasuko Nakai — who takes care of the temple’s general affairs — greets me and ushers me inside. Although the original wooden structure was built in 1558, it was twice damaged by fire and Zennoji’s current incarnation was constructed in 1925.
Shoji screen doors are opened and I’m promptly led into a tatami room with exquisitely painted walls. I sip green tea as I wait for an another group — a party of 25 businessmen on a team-building trip — to finish their meditation session.
Wearing traditional black-and-gray robes with white-socked feet, the head monk, Kouhaku Nakai, greets me and leads me further into the temple. We pass through an enclosed glass corridor and a Zen garden, before entering the sodo (monk’s meditation hall), which was built in the style of a 13th-century Chinese Zazendo hall.
“Can you speak Japanese?” asks the monk. “A little,” I reply.
Although no speaking takes place during a zazen meditation session, a basic understanding of Japanese is helpful to follow the monk’s instructions and get the most out of the 40-minute-long experience.
Before beginning, the head monk communicates the rest of his instructions to me through smiles and gestures. Just as I think the seated meditation is about to begin, the monk reminds us to observe the Rin’i-monjin protocol, the proper way to greet people you will meditate with. He shows us how to hold my hands flat together, as though we are praying — an expression of respect, faith and devotion. Once the formalities are over, a loud bell rings three times, signaling the start of zazen.
We sit upright, relax our shoulders and breathe deeply. I try to clear my mind, but there are distractions: I think about trying to see what the priest is doing out of the corner of my eye and become concerned at one point that my leg muscles will cramp up. If I was a real monk-in-training at the temple, I’d be worried about being hit with the “encouragement stick,” known as keisaku or kyōsaku. This long, thin piece of wood is traditionally used by a monk to remedy sleepiness or lapses in concentration in those meditating. But Zennoji overlooks this element of the practice for delicate non-Japanese.
The bell chimes again; it’s hard to believe that 40 minutes has passed.
My mind feels clear. The last time I was this calm was after a two-week holiday in Fiji. The monk smiles graciously as we leave, and he tells me that we had been practicing Soto meditation. Practitioners of other schools of Buddhism such as Rinzai, may attain enlightenment through koans (poems used to probe reality), puzzles or questions. The goal of Soto seated meditation is to clear the mind of thoughts.
I say farewell and begin my own walking meditation along the rest of the Higashiyama route — a fitting end to my experience with Soto Zen that heightens the effect of zazen. With my senses awakened and spirit revitalized, I take in the scent of the flowers, which seem more vibrant than ever. The sound of water cascading through the city’s network of open canals can be heard in the distance and the words of a logic-defying Zen proverb run through my mind: “Knock on the sky and listen to the sound.”
Though Zennoji offers meditation classes, it does not offer accommodation. So I find myself back in the center of Takayama at Zenkoji Temple, which, in return for donations, offers rooms for people who want to learn more about Japanese culture. Built in 1894, Zenkoji belongs to the Jodo-shu sect, a branch of Pure Land Buddhist.
The guesthouse feels like a retreat, and I’m told I can use the shrine room to meditate, although the receptionist tells me “there is no monk at the moment” and, as a result, no zazen sessions. The room has a faint smell of incense, which has been burning here for more than a century. When I sit down, I am surprised how easy it is to clear my mind of thoughts and meditate, despite the noise of other guests coming and going. I’m not sure if it’s the environment or the fact I’m liberated from my daily grind, but I find it easier to focus in the mountains of Takayama than when I’m at home.
My accommodation is a basic tatami room, with sliding doors and a single futon. But staying in a temple is a peaceful experience you won’t easily find elsewhere.
My time in Takayama reminded me that Japan is much more than fast paced cities, with shopping, drinking and karaoke. Backed by spectacular peaks, the temples along the Higashiyama trail offer a taste of the ancient tradition of zazen and are a window to the religion that is still ingrained in the country’s art, culture and spirituality. Zazen is at the heart of Zen Buddhism — a means of finding insight into the ethereal beauty of nature and our own existence.
Even those who don’t think of themselves as Buddhist, like myself, can find inspiration in Zen teachings and apply its practices to their daily life. The practice has influenced renegade writers such as Jack Kerouac, poets such as Gary Snyder, even ceramicists and silicon valley’s finest.
Visiting Takayama is an opportunity to experience this quieter side of Japan. Let the temples and mountain air soothe your mind, and the scent of the forest and sound of rushing water relax you. Whether you live in Japan or are visiting from abroad, this little hilltop city is the perfect place to escape for a weekend to slow down and quiet the mind.
Takayama Station is two-hour train ride from Nagoya Station. Limited express trains depart hourly for Takayama. Tickets can be purchased from major Japan Rail stations.
Takayama Hostel Guesthouse Zenkoji Temple (takayamahostelzenkoji.com; 0577-32-8470) offers modest rooms in return for donations.
Zennoji Temple (0577-32-4516) provides zazen meditation. Please ask the conccierge at your hotel to ring and book a session in advance.
Food and drink
Kakusho (kakusyo.com; 0577-32-0174) is an exclusive restaurant that makes the type of authentic shōjin ryōri (traditional vegetarian Buddhist cuisine) eaten by Zen Buddhist monks. It has been run by the same family for more than 200 years.
Heianraku (6-7-2 Tenmanmachi, Takayama, 0577-32-3078) is a reasonably priced restaurant that serves Chinese food in a Japanese style, including gyōza dumplings, noodle dishes and vegetarian options. The proprietress is comfortable speaking English.