It might come as a surprise to many of us – as it certainly did to me – that the very first Zen temple founded in Japan isn’t located somewhere in the ancient imperial streets of Kyōto or the time-hallowed precincts of Nara, but right in the bustling downtown of Fukuoka.
The modern face of Kyūshū’s most populous city may strike some as disappointingly bland, but all it takes to peel away the accretions of present-day utilitarianism is a leisurely stroll from Gion Station, on the Fukuoka City Subway’s Kūkō Line.
Our first stop, which happens to be just a few steps away from one of the station exits…
…is Tōchō-ji. Founded in the early 9th century A.D., the temple’s notable assets include a thousand-armed Kannon statue (dating from the late Heian era), and what is said to be the largest seated Buddha statue in Japan (made in the late 20th century) … but I wasn’t really interested in either of those. Even the architecture of the temple’s front gate and main hall, whilst refined and classically correct, didn’t strike me as especially noteworthy.
What I did find particularly arresting was the sight of twin sakura trees in full bloom, with their pale pink blossoms wonderfully complementing the elegant traditional design of the temple’s smaller outbuildings.
Another tree peeking out of a nearby wall displayed blossoms in a richer shade of pink, illustrating the variety of springtime hues now spreading out over the streets of Fukuoka.
On the street running just behind Tōchō-ji, we find a small but quite beautifully constructed tile-roofed wooden gate…
…that opens onto a long path leading to Myōraku-ji.
The temple was first erected in 1316 on the shores of Hakata Bay, and for a time it accommodated members of diplomatic missions to China – reminiscent of the role played by the much older kōrokan complex (also located here in Fukuoka). After it was destroyed by fire in the late 16th century, Myōraku-ji was re-established on its present-day site, much further inland.
After taking a quick peek, let’s head a little further north-west up the same road we’d just come from. Not far away from Myōraku-ju stands a larger and older temple, indeed the very first Zen temple established in Japan: Shōfuku-ji.
Originally completed in 1195, during the Kamakura Period, Shōfuku-ji – like many ancient compounds of its sort and vintage – has seen its various structures destroyed, removed, and replaced over the centuries. Nonetheless, the temple retains a suitably ancient feel throughout its grounds and makes for a delightfully stark contrast with the concrete jungle that has grown up all around.
Next, it’s back to the hard asphalt and bland modernity of downtown Fukuoka – but only for a short time, I promise. After a brief ride on the subway, we’ll soon find ourselves once more within an ancient castle and a refreshingly calm oasis of greenery right in the heart of the city: places that we’ve been to just days before, though today we’ll find them magnificently transformed by the arrival of countless sakura blossoms.
All that, of course, in the next post.