JAPAN HERITAGE Eiheiji: For a few bucks, you too can try for enlightenment

May 13, 2011

Far back in history, the monk Dogen made the hazardous journey to China. After training, he returned to Japan and was invited in 1244 to head what has become one of the nation's most accessible Zen temples, Eiheiji.

The temple is justly famous as a Zen training center, where not only is zazen--silent, seated meditation--taught, but also a form of Zen Buddhism that permeates every aspect of daily life, including eating, sleeping and even toilet practices.

Every day, about 250 monks undergo training at Eiheiji, strictly following the teachings set down by Dogen so many years ago.

The temple grounds hold about 70 structures, including the Hatto lecture hall, the Daikuin kitchen, the Sodo priests' hall for zazen practice and the toilets, called Tosu.

All are situated in an expansive area covering 330,000 square meters in the mountains of Fukui Prefecture amid Japanese cedars nearly seven centuries old.

The many structures have been razed by fires over the years. The oldest today is the Sanmon, the main gate leading to the temple, which was reconstructed in 1749 and through which more than 1 million visitors from both in and outside Japan pass through annually.

A typical day for a monk training at Eiheiji starts at 3:30 a.m., although some leeway is allowed during winter, when the days start at 4:30 a.m.

First comes zazen and sutra chanting, followed by chores--cleaning, weeding and sometimes shoveling snow. Sutra chanting and reading are conducted in the morning, noon and evening.

A meager evening meal--each meal involves complicated rituals, including the fixed positions of bowls and utensils, that must be observed--is eaten at 5 p.m.

This is followed by zazen or a lecture before bed at 9 p.m.

There are programs for tourists wishing to get a taste of the Zen experience. They will have a chance to get up at 3:30 a.m., do zazen, chores and chant sutras.

The three-night program costs 13,600 yen ($150). A sutra book and washing cost extra.

For those not quite so game but still wanting to experience a bit of Zen ambience, Eiheiji offers an overnight program for 8,000 yen. Even this less-rigorous day starts early, so be prepared.

Another attraction in Fukui Prefecture is the rugged Echizen coastline, battered by waves rolling in from the Sea of Japan.

Eroded by the waves over the ages, the magnificent cliffs of Tojinbo, with their pillar-like formations, are worth a visit.

For history buffs, a visit to the Ichijodani ruins, about 10 kilometers from the city of Fukui, is recommended. It is a rare site indeed, where five generations of the Asakura daimyo clan prospered. The town was razed in 1573 by troops loyal to warrior lord Oda Nobunaga.

Today, a replica park has been created to give visitors a sense of the former township. In addition, excavated relics are on display at the Ichijodani Asakura Family Site Museum.

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To reach Fukui, take a flight to Komatsu Airport and then a bus to JR Komatsu Station. It is a 45-minute ride on the JR Hokuriku Line to Fukui Station.

By train, it is about 70 minutes on express trains from Maibara Station.

To reach Eiheiji, a direct bus service to Eiheiji Mon-mae stop from Fukui Station is available at least six times a day, a ride of 30 minutes.

The Ichijodani Asakura clan ruins are about a 20-minute walk from Ichijodani Station on the JR Etsumi-hoku Line from Fukui Station.

Visit (www.pref.fukui.jp) or (www.city.fukui.lg.jp).

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