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.

New Year – temples, shrines but no fireworks

“I’ve just spent four days cleaning my house, one day for each room. Is this winter cleaning the same as spring cleaning in England?” my host mother asked. I told her frankly that I didn’t know anyone in England who spends four days cleaning their house, even under the name of ‘spring cleaning’. Yet in Japan osoji cleaning is an essential part of the new year celebrations and is done in homes, offices and schools. On the last day of term, I’d spent over an hour cleaning the school with the students; washing windows and wiping surfaces as part of osoji. This is the first of many traditions of shogatsu, New Year in Japan.


Shogatsu is celebrated during the first week of January and it’s a time when families get together, share symbolic food and welcome in the new year together. Just like a western Christmas, the preparations for the festival puts the country in a mild state of panic as houses need to be cleaned, decorations need to be hung and banquets of food needs to be cooked. Yet, when New Year’s Eve arrives families settle into spending lazy days at home, visiting relatives and eating mochi rice cakes under their kotatsu. 

New Year Eve

On December 31st, most families watch their favourite TV shows until just before midnight when they dress up warm and visit a Buddhist temple. Neighbours join force to ring a large bell 108 times, the number of worldly desires in Buddhist belief, to cast off their sins from the previous year. After the bells have been rung, long soba noodles and ozoni soup is eaten to bring about a long, happy year.

From then on, a number of firsts are celebrated. The first visit to a shrine or temple, the first sunrise and, the first dream hatsuyume. The first dream is on the night of New Year’s Day to the morning of the 2nd and the luckiest dreams are: “first, Mt.Fuji; second, hawks; third, eggplants”. The origin of these ‘lucky’ dreams are contested so I’m afraid I can’t tell you how the humble eggplant (aubergine) got into the top three!

New Year’s Day

As I walked around Echizen on January 1st, it felt like a ghost town. Cars were in driveways, lights were on but the streets were deserted. I realised later that families don’t generally go out on these days, except to visit a shrine on New Year’s Day. I stopped to watch as a middle-aged man make his first visit to a shrine. He first threw a coin in to an offering box, bowed deeply twice, clapped his hands, bowed again and then pulled a rope that hit a bronze gong. As the sound vibrated through the vicinity, he held his hands in pray. I then copied him, but didn’t bang the gong so forcefully as I didn’t want to wake the kami, the Shinto gods. What would they think of me with a camera round my neck and not knowing if I was in a temple or a shrine!

The mix of Shinto and Buddhist beliefs is confusing for most foreigners. A friendly café owner explained to me that he visits a Buddhist temple to pray for his deceased relatives, but he visits a Shinto shrine to pray for good luck about worldly things, such as health and good business. This has been confirmed to be by my bible of Japanese culture*, that assures me that Buddhism is associated with spiritual matters and temples host funerals. Whereas, Shinto is a religion of earthly matters and shrines are places to pray for success in everyday life. Most people in Japan practise both faiths therefore, it’s customary to both visit a temple, to be purified from the sins they committed in the last year, and a shrine, to pray for good fortune in the coming year. The best of both worlds, you could say.

After all that praying has been done, osechi-ryori is eaten from tiered lacquered boxes filled with symbolic foods. I didn’t try any of this food, nor did I visit a temple at midnight because I was partying with a mix of Brazilian and Irish friends in Osaka. When the clock struck 12, I was in an Irish pub drinking Magners and humming Auld Lang Syne. I had no chance to hear the bells ring out 108 times over the racket of drunk ex-pats!

Yet when my group of rowdy revellers were wandering the streets of downtown Osaka and shouting “Happy New Year” to everyone and anyone, I noticed that they’d been no fireworks. Surely every country has fireworks at midnight on New Year’s Eve? Well, apparently not Japan. Fireworks here are associated with summer festivals. I don’t really blame them, as who wants to watch fireworks outside in minus zero temperatures? When we eventually found the club we we’re searching for, I was happy to be inside and dancing the new year away with my new friends.

I haven’t even touched on the sending nengajo New Year’s card or about children receiving packets of money from their relatives, but as you can see New Year in Japan is steeped in tradition, religion and history to bring about a good year and wave good bye to the previous year.

Welcome, the year of the snake!

*The Bilingual Handbook on Japanese Culture. Gillespie, J. K. (2004).