Eihei-ji Temple – a place of wonder

When I first watched the Zen Buddhist monks living a life of silence and solitude at Eihei-ji Temple, I thought they must be super-willed special people, different from the rest of us. But at a hostel in December, I met a Zen Buddhist monk in Kobe, who liked drinking, watching films and had a great sense of humour. So now I have even more respect for the men following such a strict way of life at Eijei-ji Temple,as they must want to share a joke, to watch a film or to drink the night away, but they can’t. That’s what makes their way of life impressive; they are just human like the rest of us.

 

Eiheji Temple is one of the largest Zen Buddhist training temples in Japan, and it is a natural haven for both trainee monks and for visitors. The temple complex is set in a shady valley with tall cedar trees, interspersed between the buildings. It is a place which seems bigger than it is, with a maze of corridors on different levels giving a spacious feel to it. Many of the corridors are open-air, and it feels like you’re walking outside. As well as trees towering above the temples, wood is used everywhere; the floor is made of it, the columns holding up the roof are made of it and the handrails which you can use to guide yourself down steep stairs are made from wood. Every part has been smoothed to perfection, from years of cleaning and years of feet gliding across it.

The monks wear black robes, sandals with no socks and have a shaven head. It was in April when I last visited and I was still wearing thick socks and a woolly scarf. At first, I think they must be cold, but then I looked at their skin and their cheeks were almost glowing. Life in a monastery, working outside and eating only vegetarian food must be a healthy one.

On my last visit here, I was showing my mum around, and she had fallen under the charm of the temple and was taking another look around. I waited on a bench and watched as a man was practising ringing a large gong. The sound vibrated through the air, competing with the sound of rushing water which trickles through ponds and waterfalls. The monastery is just a human-inhabited extension of the forest.

Tourists invade the harmony and peace of the monastery. With brightly-coloured anoraks and children running around, the peace is rippled, but perhaps this daily filtering in of the outside world, maintains the balance of this temple. The monks are reminded of the vices and temptations of the outside. Attractive female visitors must be a test for 120 monks living in celibacy. As I watch tourists cross boundaries to take the best photo, monks walk gracefully in a straight line, turning to bow at an altar in the distance.

They all have just one tatami mat to sleep, eat and pray on. Privacy is only in the mind. I wonder when these monks relax and unwind. I doubt sake is smuggled in, or mid-night binges on steak or sushi are had. Perhaps for the time they are here, they forego the pleasures of the outside and instead opt for having a clear mind, a healthy body and no distractions, apart from a few tourists documenting their life through a camera lens.

Walking around the temple complex, I have the same sense of awe at this sacred place as I do when I walk in a cathedral, or look up at the ceiling of a mosque. Even when you don’t have any religious beliefs, the atmosphere of a religious community can be enough to stir deep thoughts inside of you. This temple is so far from the bright lights and consumerist world of modern Japanese cities, it is like a breath of fresh air for the soul.

I bowed my head at the monks walking past, respecting their choice of life, but I still remember the monk at a bon-enkai in Kobe who drank me under the table.

Into the mud: planting rice with students

“Squelch, sludge, squish” were the sounds of my feet being sucked into the muddy rice field. The grey-brown mud squeezed between my toes and held my foot under, before I could prized it away to take another step. The mud was warm; at some points a layer of murky water sat on top of the sludge, and worse of all I could feel unknown things in the mud. They could be explained by the small bubbles that emerged from a watery footprint next to me. As I moved on with haste a small frog jumped away from me! I managed to keep my cool, although I screamed a little inside, and with a line of students waiting behind me there was nothing to do but continue on into the muddy depths.

Every year in early May the second graders at my school plant kuromai (black rice) in a tanbo (rice field) near the school. I’ve seen students’ paintings of this activity and have eaten the black rice at the Cultural Festival, so when my supervisor asked me if I wanted to join the rice planting today, I immediately said yes!

Being a JET is all about being prepared for the unknown, like when you turn up looking a sleep deprived and are told it’s the school photograph day, or just as a class is starting the teacher turns to you and asks you if you have any activities. Gulp. But over the last nine months I’ve learnt to be prepared for everything, a make-up kit ready for a school photo, a list of games for classes and an ‘emergency’ PE kit for times like these. So luckily, I was able to join the students in this annual event.

Before the hundred-so students set off to the rice field, there was a briefing of how to plant the rice. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t really help me until I saw the demonstration in the actual rice field. First, a hexagonal contraption is rolled across the mud to create a grid pattern of where to plant the seedling, or ricelings as I like to call them. Then we were given a palette of closely grown ricelings which we had to lovingly poke into the mud on the joining points of the lines. It was as easy at that!

There were screams and shrieks as the girls got into the mud and I had to stop some of them running back out of the muddy field! Then we had about an hour of planting time. It went by quickly and with so many people planting the seeds, the field was soon covered in lines of green seedlings. Yet now I feel for the real farmers of rural Fukui who have to spend all day, for many weeks just planting rice fields. It must get a bit tiresome if you’re not surrounded by a hundred excited students who are singing songs and falling over in the mud!

I look forward to watching the ricelings sprout up and then being able to eat the rice we planted in September. Just another school experience which beats any school trip I did as a student! I wonder what else the school year has in store for me…

These boys were shrieking at this point!

These boys were shrieking at this point!

Making a grid pattern on the mud

Making a grid pattern on the mud

It looks like this parent-helper was dancing, or maybe he was just stuck in the mud!

It looks like this parent-helper was dancing, or maybe he was just stuck in the mud!

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The rice field was filling up with water as we were planting the ricelings

Washing off the mud in the so-called 'gaijin traps'

Washing off the mud in the so-called ‘gaijin traps’

Dressing up Heian style

When my friends and I were asked if we wanted to dress up in a kimono and take part in a local festival, we enthusiastically agreed. What we didn’t know, was that we would be part of an re-enactment parade wearing 11th century-style kimonos! It was a day of unknowns, but a great experience overall.

P1040735Preparations

A week before the event, my friends and I were told strict instructions for the day. Wear white socks, bring a plastic straw to drink water from, a small lunch and most importantly, don’t be late! So on the day of the festival we turned up at 10am sharp, paid for our hair and make-up fees, and ticked our names off the list. Then the preparations began.

First, we were coated with a white-base foundation, put on roughly with a sponge big enough to wash a car. Then pinky-orange blusher was dabbed on our cheeks, making us look not unlike the Japanese character Anpanman. We looked almost comical compared to a Japanese girl next to us who had model-perfect skin, subtle pink blusher and small red lips. (It later turned out that they hadn’t finished our make-up and five minutes before we joined the parade we had to apply our own makeup!)

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It was then time to get dressed in our ‘twelve-layered’ kimono. It is customary bright, with many layers of silk skirts, and beautifully embodied patterns on the outer robes. It also has an extended trail which needs to be held up when walking. It’s probably the most impractical dress I’ve ever seen, let alone worn, exemplified by having to have someone hold our trail!

Our kimono only consisted of about four layers, but with another few collars sewn into it, to make it look like we’re wearing twelve layers. Still, this is no ordinary dress and needs specialists to know how to put them on. We each had two Japanese women wrapping, tying and pinning us in to our kimonos. It starts with tying towels to your body, to cushion the kimono. This may be necessary for slim Japanese women, but my friends and I thought we could do without this first step!

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P1040694By the end of this process, I looked wider than I was tall, and with the weight of all the layers about 3 kilograms heavier. We found out that these kimono would be about £30,000 to buy, so we understood why we had to drink our water out of a straw, just in case we spilt it! And there was definitely not a chance of going to the toilet in such an expensive bundle of clothes!

As we were waiting for our hair to be made-up, we watched more and more people get changed into Heian era costumes. There were about 150 people taking part in the parade, mostly women but a fair few children and a handful of men, too. It was funny watching children play games, or roll about on the floor in their old-style clothes, their mother’s trying to stop them ruining their neatly tied hair and make-up. One girl has escaped her mother’s view and was navigating the play area outside in her trailing kimono!

We had our hair done in the hairstyle at the time, suberakashi, where the side parts of the hair are filled out with some fuzzy hair-like material, and for us an extension was put in to make our hair about a foot longer, and our head’s much heavier! Funny head pieces were pinned on top of our hair-do, and sprigs of fake wisteria hung awkwardly from our pony tails!

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Near the end of our four-hour preparation time, we realised that our teacher had forgotten to mention two key things about the day. Firstly, that we would need to have our own zori (Japanese sandals). We were under the impression we would borrow them, but on the day there were no zori to borrow, so we had no choice but to wear our red sneakers! Thankfully, the spectators were so surprised to see foreigners in the parade, they weren’t looking at our shoes!

Secondly, the kimono has a long trail at the back, meaning that it would get ruined if it wasn’t held up by someone. It was my host mother, host sister and a friend who came to the rescue and paraded behind us wearing a servant’s dress. I hope I can repay the favour if they ever need their kimono trail held up!

Twelve-layered Kimono and Wisteria Festival

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This festival is celebrating links with Murasaki Shikibu (978-1014), a writer who lived in Echizen in the Heian Period (794-1185), and is timed with the blossom of fuji (wisteria). The park is named after the female author who wrote the classic Japanese book ”The Tale of Genji”. In the book, she describes Heian court society, where high-class women had floor-length hair, whitened skin and blackened teeth, and were not allowed to speak directly to men so hid their faces behind fans when they spoke. The twelve-layered ceremonial robe (juni-hitoe) was worn by court ladies and daughters of the warrior-class families, and as well as showing off the families’ wealth and rank, the many layers kept the women warm in a time before paraffin heaters. I wonder how many layers they wore in the hot and humid summer! I also wonder how on earth they went to the toilet in these dresses!

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Nowadays, this dress is only worn for weddings in the Imperial Family. The last time it was seen worn was in 1993 by Princess Masako, who looked very much like she couldn’t move in it. Crown Prince Naruhito And Crown Princess Masako

It is however seen during the Dolls’ festival Hinamatsuri  which occurs in March. Nearly every family has a handmade set of dolls which are set out on a platform in early February to the 3rd March, Girls’ Day. This festival which is an occasion to pray for young girls’ growth and happiness.  

Japanese ornamental "hina" dolls are pictured at a doll shop in Tokyo

The parade

We paraded under the trellises of full-bloom lilac and purple wisteria. Although it had just turned May, it was a hot day and standing in the sun for an hour made our dress, hair and make-up seem like the most uncomfortable thing in the world. The under-ties were squashing my rib cage, my hair was tightly pulled back and we had about five too many layers for the 25’C heat.

It was great to take part in such a unique festival, but we were all so glad to step out of the heavy robes and wipe the make-up off our faces. Next year, I’ll just be a spectator!

Every city has it's own cute character, Echizen's is Kikurin. If we were feeling the heat, imagine the person inside this custome!

Every city has its own cute character, Echizen’s is Kikurin. If we were feeling the heat, imagine the person inside this costume!