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Thursday, 28 May 2015

Sōji-ji, the centre of Zen in eastern Japan

Sōji-ji is a bit of an odd duck, but it's a very calm, cheerful, wood-chopping, water-carrying duck.

It is, after all, one of Japan's two main Sōtō Zen temples. The famous one is Eihei-ji, which has everything one would expect: remote mountain location, mysterious forests, deep snow. Sōji-ji, on the other hand, is smack-bang in the middle of Tsurumi near Yokohama. It's an industrialized zone with identical apartment buildings and big companies like Toshiba, Nissan, Kirin and Asahi Glass. Not exactly conducive to shikantaza.
That's why I was a bit skeptical when I visited it, but … it won me over very quickly. It's a training temple, and monks carry on with their duties despite a steady stream of visitors. I'm used to Zen temples and monks who ignore you – vow of silence and ascetic seclusion and what-not – but not this bunch! Every one of them greeted me with a cheerful "konnichi wa" and a wide grin: the guys working in the garden, the guys sweeping the paths, the guys hurrying along the beautiful Hyakkenrōka (百間廊下) corridor, the guy ringing the big temple bell while joking with his friends.

I've never seen discipline combined with so much … not sure what word to use. Delight? Radiance? Gaiety? Even two visiting kindergarten groups – dear Buddha, toddlers are noisy – couldn't kill my ever-widening smile as I ambled, marvelled and explored for two hours.


I'm not going to retell the history in detail, because it's already been done to perfection on this website. (I linked to a cache, because the website itself seems to be down. I hope it's temporary, since that website is a goldmine of information about especially Kamakura's temples.) Essays in Idleness also has a very nice post.

Here's my own brief summary:

The founder of Sōtō Zen is Eihei Dōgen, who brought the religion from China to Japan during the 13th century and established a temple called Eihi-ji in Fukui.

The long corridor

It remained a fairly small, elitist faith until a monk called Keizan Jōkin started popularizing it and spreading it throughout the country and among all levels of Japanese society. Keizan established a temple called Sōji-ji on the Nota peninsula in Ishikawa, but the temple burned down in 1898. Zen leaders then decided to move the temple to eastern Japan, since western Japan already had Eihei-ji. I've read that Yokohama was chosen because it was a port with a thriving foreign community, and even back then the leaders wanted to give Zen a more international following.

That, gentle reader, explains why Sōji-ji is now located in Tsurumi. It opened in 1911, and it shares the responsibility of main Sōtō Zen temple in Japan with Eihei-ji. Today the religion has 15 000 sub-temples and 8 million followers throughout the world.

The buildings

It's a massive complex of 190 000 square meters, and as soon as you enter the main gate, you step into a forested area alive with bird song, chanting and … screaming toddlers. Fortunately they left relatively quickly, and there were few other visitors. Tranquility.

The complex has the required shichidō garan as well as several other buildings, a small Jizō temple, an Inari shrine and a Kannon statue.

The long corridor with a gate called Mukaikaramon (向唐門) in the background

My favourite structure is the Hyakkenrōka (百間廊下) corridor that stretches from east to west. It’s called the 100 ken corridor: ken is an old unit of length of 1.8 meters. Monks polish the floor by hand every day, which has made the wood as smooth as glass. You can see how they do it in this video, at 1:45, and yes, that's Sōji-ji.

The corridor has two parts: a raised wooden floor and a lower dirt level. It's also interrupted at certain places so that you can pass through. So simple, so beautiful.

The long corridor's floor is as smooth as glass.

Unsui statues

I'm quoting this from the website
Unsui is a word that consists of un (cloud) and sui (water). It denotes a mendicant priest, travelling across the country in search of Buddha teachings or great Zen masters. They go anywhere just like drifting clouds and flowing water. The statues [at Sōji-ji ] were carved in 1973 by Torao Yazaki (1904-1988), a famous sculptor in Japan, who studied sculpture in France under Ossip Zadkine (1890-1967). A replica also stands at Bois de Vincennes in Paris, donated by the Temple as a token to show friendship between Japan and France.

Ha! There's an Ossip Zadkine statue in Tokyo, too, on Chūō-Oohashi, a bridge across the Sumida River. It's called The Messenger, and it was donated to Tokyo by Paris. I wrote about it here.

More laughter

I arrived at the Big Temple Bell (to the left of the main entrance) just as it was rung, and again it was done with more laughter than I'd expected. It clearly requires effort, and the monk was grunting – and laughing – without inhibitions. He also has to shout / chant while he does it, and I could hear his voice cracking.

The big temple bell

I recorded him surreptitiously from a hiding place near a smaller Inari shrine. You can clearly his grunt and their laughter:

Go. You won't be sorry.

It's a beautiful temple, albeit in a very austere Zen way. You can join a guided tour, but it has to be booked the day before. English tours are available on Saturdays, but again it has to be booked prior to your visit. The temple itself is free; the tours are ¥400 per person.

The temple is very easy to get to: barely five minutes from Tsurumi Station on the Keihin-Tōhoku Line.

It's not as commercial as Sensō-ji, and there aren't exactly a thousand shops, but you'll receive the most beatific hellos this side of hippy heaven. Highly recommended.

The rest of the post is simply a collection of photos, starting at the entrance of the temple and progressing roughly chronologically through the complex. I didn't take any photos of interiors except the wide open corridor; I've never been comfortable photographing the interior of holy places.

The main entrance

Outer gate

The massive main gate, Sanmon

Sanmon seen from the hill on which the temple bell stands

Mukaikaramon (向唐門)

The long corridor

Praying at the Buddha hall

Main reception hall

Above small Inari shrine tucked into a corner of the complex, and below Jizō statues at a small Jizō temple

The neighbourhood around the temple isn't exactly pretty.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Hanging out with Enma, the king of hell

It was an experiment. Science, sacrifice, success.

I can't go hiking with a backpack anymore, since an old injury is causing too many complications. Even my Canon EOS is a tad hefty for this wonky support system called the cervical spine. (It's really not a particularly efficient design: there's too much stuff happening in too narrow a space.)

So I opted for minimalism.

I can't hike in mountains? Fine, I'll walk in my neighbourhood. Can't carry a backpack or even a bag? OK, I'll take my camera, cash and my front door key. That's it. Not even a smartphone. I defy any Tokyo woman to go for a 3-hour walk with nothing but a camera, cash and a front door key. I can think of two who'd accept that challenge: a friend who's an anthropology professor who's gadded about in deserts for months on end, and Kaori, who's a barbarian from Okinawa.

Enma, the king of hell

I walked from Asakusa to Monzen-Nakachō to say hello to the king of hell. He's been ruling my life lately, so I thought I'd pop in and tell him to … well … go to hell. Then I walked back. It was about 10 km in total. I had a faint headache when I got home, but it was ignore-able. No migraine, no nausea, no blurred vision.

The lord of the underworld has many different names: Enma or Yenma, Enma-ō (King Enma) and Enma Dai-ō (Great King Enma). He's one of the twelve devas (kings of the twelve directions in esoteric Buddhism), and he's the chief judge in the afterlife: when people die, they have to appear before Enma, who decides whether they are good or bad, and then sends them to the appropriate afterworld.

I met him at Hōjō-in (法上院), established in 1629 in Fukagawa. It has the largest seated statue of Enma in Japan: it's 3.5 m high, 4.5 m wide and it weighs 1.5 tons.


"Now listen, boet," I told him, "we all know I'm doomed to go to hell, but this ain't it yet. It's still this world, here, now. So enough already with this pain crap. Put a sock in it and save it for later. You'll get your chance, but right now yamete bugger off tjaila time. Come back later. Kbye."

Enma glared at me. I glared back. He sneered. I snarled. He sulked. I got stroppy and left.

He won't leave me alone quite yet, but I'm not going down without a fight. Hmph.

Enma is in there, behind glass.

The temple also has a collection of paintings of hell, but it's usually closed to the public. I saw it years ago during a shichifukujin meguri (seven lucky gods pilgrimage) in that area. I've included a few photos from way back when.

I'm going to stop now, because skewwhiffy necks and computers aren't best buddies. I haven't – as per usual – responded to all previous comments yet. You know I will, eventually, one day.

Patience is a great virtue.



Jizō statues with babies. Jizō, the protector of children and travelers, always carries
a staff with six rings that jingle to warn animals of his approach.

These statues are in an exhibition hall at the temple. It's not always open to the public.
Ditto the paintings of hell below.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Daien-ji, the temple that stops headaches

I've mentioned before that my life can be a pain in the neck. Literally: an old injury, sustained in a car accident, still causes severe headaches. It's called occipital neuralgia, a fairly rare …

What? You didn’t expect me to go for a dead-ordinary garden-variety problem, did you? Oh ye of little faith.

It's a fairly rare neurological condition in which the occipital nerves – the nerves that run from the top three vertebrae up through the scalp – are inflamed or injured, and the end-result is a headache that's a bit not good. When it gets really bad, you can't see, lose your balance, retch violently. It feels as if you're carrying something very, very, very heavy on your head.

The baking pan Jizō that protects you against headaches.

I've learned to manage it with physio and neck exercises, but earlier this year it went to hell in a handbasket, and since then I've been struggling to control it.

I was getting so grumpy that I jumped onto websites that list genze riyaku (現世利益) or goriyaku (ご利益) – “this-wordly benefits” bestowed on the worshiper by the resident deity at a shrine or temple – and checked for headaches. Surely, I thought, there must be at least one god that would take pity on me?

I wôs right: there's a Jizō called the "baking pan Jizō" (焙烙地蔵 Hōroku Jizō) at a temple called Daien-ji (大圓寺)  in Hakusan, which is apparently the only Zen temple in Bunkyō-ku.  As soon as I discovered that, I took off. It's not far from my apartment; it took about 30 minutes to get there.

Lo and behold, a Jizō with earthenware baking pans known as hōroku ( or ほうろく) on his head. Some hōroku, especially those used in the tea ceremony, are hollow and have handles; others are flat (link, link). I haven't been able to determine the link between the baking pans and headaches, but, dunno, maybe it's because an intense headache really fries your brains? Mark Schumacher says, "Devotees offer earthenware plates to images of this Jizō when they suffer from headaches or other head ailments. They write their prayers on the earthenware, and present the plates to Jizō, or place it atop the statue's head." Gabi Greve says, "During the ancestor festival O-Bon in August temples provide hōroku that you can place on the graves and make a little fire in them to welcome the ancestors."

I was at Daien-ji on a public holiday, and not a soul could be seen except another enthusiastic photographer. I didn't pray or make an offer or buy a plate. No no no. I'm a cynic, remember, who visits temples to satisfy an intellectual curiosity, not a spiritual need.

I did have a chat with the Jizō. "Yo, bro," I said, "this neck thing is a bummer, if I may mix my metaphors and anatomy. I can't even go on decent hikes anymore because I can't carry a backpack; I've tried twice and both times I spent the next 24 hours curled into a ball; and it's not a good idea to lose your sight and your balance on a mountain. So. Like. You  know. If you're getting tired of salarymen with hangover headaches and you want to give a girl a hand, here I am. I haven't contributed financially to your temple, but I've done a bit of free PR for you. I wish I could take all these plates with me because, holy whatsimicallits, I'd love to smash them on my students' heads. However. Compassion, tolerance and all that. Understood. So, umm, this neck. Please? Kbye."

Let's hope I picked up Virtuous Vertebra Vibes at this temple.

PS: I know of more than one person who's waiting for a post about Chiba, local trains and nanohana. I'll get there. Promise.

The entrance to Daien-ji

The main temple


Selfie! :)

Friday, 24 April 2015

A happy Hachiko, reunited with his owner

I'm not going to retell the story of Hachiko. Does anybody NOT know it? Impossible. What may be news -- though it received a lot of publicity -- is that Hachiko has been reunited with his owner, Hidesaburo Ueno, in a new statue that can be seen at the University of Tokyo, where Ueno was a professor of agricultural engineering.

Here's an excerpt from an Asahi article:
The statue, which depicts Hachiko jumping up to greet Ueno, who is extending his hand to pat the dog, stands about 1.9 meters high and weighs about 280 kilograms. It is located near the main gate of the campus for the university’s Faculty of Agriculture in Tokyo’s Bunkyo Ward.
The university faculty had started the project to bring the Akita breed dog and his owner together in a memorial statue. Faculty members have solicited donations from individuals and companies since last year and collected more than 10 million yen ($83,000).
Hachiko is believed to have patiently waited for his owner’s return from work every day at Tokyo’s Shibuya Station for about 10 years even after Ueno's death. In commemoration of the daily vigil, a lone statue of Hachiko was erected in front of Shibuya Station in 1934, even while the canine was still alive. The current Hachiko statue at the station, the second of its kind, was installed in 1948 after the first was melted down for much-needed scrap metal during World War II.
You can read more in this article, as well as this one.


I haven't responded to all comments at previous posts, and I will probably take my own sweet time to respond to any comments left at this post. Sorry, all. Real life has launched a coup d'état.


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