For a visitor to these shores, experiencing the essence of Buddhism during a short holiday might seem like a tall order. But in Yamaguchi City, two temples offer a fleeting, but worthwhile insight into something that has shaped the culture of Japan since the sixth century.
Shojin ryori, literally “devotion cuisine”, is prepared inside Japanese Buddhist temples and made entirely without ingredients from creatures that were once alive. These delicately arranged dishes of seasonal vegetables require hours of preparation, and it is best to take your time to fully enjoy them.
Reservations are required at least two days in advance, and you can ask to be seated inside the main temple hall, within sight of the altar, or in a private tatami-floored room. If you can, try to book a window-side space in the main hall with a view of the garden and waterfall.
The most popular lunch course includes 12 dishes. Everything is prepared inside the temple by the head priest’s wife and her assistants. The meals are based on family recipes and they have been serving to the public for thirty years. Most of the dishes are served cold, but a few are warm, including the tofu kabayaki; a dish composed of tofu, potato and lotus root, with a final touch of grilled “eel skin” crafted from nori seaweed. Similarly, the konnyaku sashimi is made from yams, and although it doesn’t taste like fish, its texture is similar to sashimi. It definitely has fewer calories.
You can work off the meal with a stroll around the temple grounds and a quick hike alongside the waterfall. In spring, the cherry blossoms are said to be spectacular, as are the colors of the foliage in autumn. The temple also boasts the tallest living ginko tree in Japan, and it is said that touching its roots will bring you longevity.
With stomachs filled and minds refreshed from the walk, the next stop was seven kilometers away at Kotakuji Temple. Entirely rebuilt in 2010, this Soto-shu Zen temple dates back 650 years, and it is one of the few temples to regularly open its doors to the public for the practice of zazen meditation.
Every Sunday between 7 and 8pm, the head priest Tsuchida-roshi leads a small group in 45 minutes of meditation. English is not spoken, but foreigners are welcome to attend and will be provided with English leaflets containing basic instruction.
Manners and protocol are very important, so please study and follow the instructions. There’s no fee, but offering a donation is normal and reservations by phone are recommended. First-timers should arrive at least 20 minutes in advance. After some brief instruction you will be seated on a zabuton cushion and sit facing a wall for 45 minutes. The goal is to quiet your mind.
I must admit, after being asked to silence my busy mind, the first ten minutes felt like an hour. My head filled quickly with excuses to stand up and leave. Eventually, I began to settle in and relax. My attempts at silently counting down from ten to zero, without letting thoughts interrupt, were making progress – I made it down to seven once!
After the meditation, the group adjourns to another room for a simple vegetarian meal. There’s strict protocol here too, and the pace is fast. I was advised to keep one or two of the sliced pickles for last. They are used with the last sips of the clear soup to wipe the inside of the rice bowl ensuring not even half a grain is wasted.
You will not achieve enlightenment from a single session, but Tsuchida hopes it will spark an interest in practicing meditation. While bowing, sitting quietly and eating a meal in a ritualized manner may not sound like an exciting thing to do, it just might be the most lasting memory of your trip.
Ryuzouji Temple (Shojin Ryori experience)
Address: 1750 Yoshiki, Yamaguchi City
Open Hours: 07:00 ~ 17:30 (temple grounds), Shojin Ryori Lunch 11:30 ~ 13:30 start (reservations required 2 days in advance)
Kotakuji Temple (Zen Meditation experience)
Address: 1483, Kurokawa, Yamaguchi City
Public zazen sessions: Sunday evenings, 19:00 ~ 20:00 (reservations recommended)
Words and Photography by Nick Szasz
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