Field Report: A temple in the forest at Eihei-ji, Fukui Prefecture, Japan (29 June 2015)

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Diego takes in the beautiful sight of traditional wooden buildings set within an ancient forest – a refreshing retreat from the urban sprawl of downtown Fukui.

With my brief excursion to Tōjinbō over, and finding myself back in Fukui with half a day still free to spend, I hopped onto an express bus bound for the thickly forested mountains east of the city.

Nestled deep within those peaks, surrounded by a dense sea of trees and with little more than a small town as its companion, was my destination for the afternoon: the temple compound of Eihei-ji (永平寺).

The approach to the temple was a tree-lined path leading up a gentle slope. Autumn would probably see this canopy transformed into a fiery sea of red and orange, but the leaves seemed no less impressive for sporting the rich green hues of summer.

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The main entrance looked suitably ancient, with its weathered timbers and metal-sheathed roof…

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…but after paying the admission fee, the first major structure I entered – a large building where all visitors are initially received – was quite modern in appearance. It did have one particularly impressive feature: a spacious hall with a lavishly decorated ceiling, reminiscent of the audience chambers in the castle palaces I’d seen elsewhere in the country.

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This relatively new addition was just one small part of the compound, and after making my way to the rear, time seemed to quietly slip away.

Shoes can’t be worn anywhere beyond the reception hall, so I puttered about with my footwear stuffed into a plastic bag. The sonorous rhythmic chanting of monks, set against the gentle music of leaves caressed by the wind, and mingled with the rustling of non-biodegradable polyethylene … such a wonderfully serene combination.

As for wandering with unshod feet – not to worry. Although consisting of multiple buildings, Eihei-ji is linked together by a series of enclosed corridors, which means that (except for certain sections like the open balconies bordering prayer halls) one can slide about in one’s socks whilst enjoying sheltered comfort. Just be careful about that sliding bit; many of the floors are mirror-smooth. I’ve also read somewhere that these wooden floors aren’t heated, so make sure that the socks you’re wearing are of the proper thermal kind when visiting in colder months.

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Interestingly, since the compound is built on a sloping site, the corridors often take the form of long staircases.

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These passageways help stitch together an assortment of structures, each with its own purpose and unique design, into a harmonious whole.

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And lest one forgets where we are, a glance out of almost any door or window should suffice to remind us of the deeply rural nest within which the temple stands, a mere half hour from the city but seemingly worlds away from civilisation.

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As a practising (and quite conservative non-syncretist) Roman Catholic, I don’t profess any deep spiritual attachment to the countless shrines and temples I’ve seen across Japan over the years, Eihei-ji included. In all of those visits (and in any visits yet to come), I was (and will be) a respectful and tolerant but passive observer, never an active participant: writing sutras, burning incense, or joining meditation exercises was not (and will never be) an option. On the other hand, every visit helps increase the special appreciation I have for the historic, architectural, and artistic heritage that these places represent … a subset, if you will, of my broader fascination with Japanese culture as a whole. Eihei-ji certainly offered much to appreciate, particularly on the architectural front: the labyrinthine layout and refined, richly varied building styles of this sprawling compound – not to mention its dramatic setting within a forested mountainside – came together to provide a feast for both the eyes and the mind.

And along with it, a touch of inspiration to get one’s creative juices flowing. During the time I spent there, walking quietly along its endless series of covered hallways and interlinked structures, I began toying with the idea of writing a story. It would be a tale set in an alternate-history Catholic Japan, with its hero a mystery-solving Japanese priest living in a rural monastery (haven’t decided yet whether it would be populated with Franciscan monks or Dominican friars), one that would look very much like our real-world Eihei-ji. I think it would be great fun to actually make that attempt one day – perhaps as early as this coming November.

Later, having had my fill of both temples and trees, I decided that it was time to abandon the mountains in favour of the big city. The bus stop right in front of the temple gate – where I’d gotten off earlier – was purely for disembarkations, so in order to return to Fukui I had to walk clear across town to the nearest boarding point. To complicate matters further, tickets weren’t sold on the bus itself (unless you were getting on at an intermediate stop) or at the boarding area, but had to be purchased from a shop across the street.

In any case, once all that was sorted out, I settled into a seat on the next available express bus and was transported back to Fukui in short order. There, I visited one additional landmark before calling it a day…

…more about which will be told in the next post.


One response to “Field Report: A temple in the forest at Eihei-ji, Fukui Prefecture, Japan (29 June 2015)

  1. Pingback: Field Report: Sticks and stones at Fukui Castle, Japan (29 June 2015) | Within striking distance·

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