永平寺(Eihei-ji) is one of two main temples of Soto school of Zen Buddhism, the largest single religious denomination in Japan. The name literally means “temple of eternal peace” in English. In Japanese, 永(Ei) means “eternal”, 平(Hei) means “peaceful”, and 寺(Ji) means “Buddhist temple”. It named after the designation of an era “永平(Eihei)”, when Buddhism came to China(the Later Han Dynasty) for the first time.
The history of Eihei-ji
In 1244, the great Zen Master Dogen(1200-53), founder of the Soto sect of Zen Buddhism, established Eihei-ji in a forest in Fukui. The original buildings were destroyed by the fires of a domestic war in 1340 and 1473, and the existenting buildings were built after modern times. The oldest existenting building in Eihei-ji was built in 1749, and the newest one was built in 1971. There are currently about one-hundred and fifty monks and disciples in residence, and all are welcome to visit the temple. Comprising of over seventy buildings, the temple receives huge numbers of visitors for tourism and training each year, and is often closed for periods varying from a week to ten days for religious observance.
People can attend the temple’s four-day, three-night sanro experience program, which follows the monks’ training schedule, complete with 3.50 a.m. prayers, cleaning, zazen (=meditation) and ritual meal. Knowledge of Japanese isn’t necessary, but it helps to be able to sit in the half-lotus position. People who have completed this course agree it is a remarkable experience. You might need to book at least two weeks in advance.
You can have a look around the inside of Eihei-ji temple if you pay the entrance fee. I have been to many temples in Japan, but I had never visited a temple like Eihei-ji before. There are a lot of temples that have several buildings, but Eihei-ji is unique among Japanese temples because its buildings are all connected by corridors and stairs. Once you enter the first building at Eihei-ji, you don’t have to go outside to visit next building since you can go through a corridor. It’s a rule that people take off their shoes to enter the buildings in Eihei-ji, so you have to take off your shoes and put them in a plastic bag, which Eihei-ji prepared for tourists, and carry the bag during sightseeing.
In general, a building in Buddhism-temple is called garan. Eihei-ji has seven important garan; 法堂(Hattou), 仏殿(Butsuden), 僧堂(soudou), 庫院(Kuin), 山門(Sanmon), 東司(Tousu), and 浴室(Yoku-sitsu). They are called 七堂伽藍(Shichido-garan). Other temples with different Buddhism groups have different names for each buildings of Shichido-garan, but 曹洞宗(Sotoshu=Zen-Buddhism) temples like Eihei-ji have the same names as above.
法堂(Hattou): Priests pray and have Buddhist memorial services in Hattou. Monks from other Buddhist temples call the building for pray and memorial services 講堂(Koudou) instead of Hattou.
仏殿(Butsuden): Butsuden is the place that the principal image of Buddha is placed in.
僧堂(Sodo): It is the main garan for priests’ training. They do zazen(=meditation), have meals, and sleep in Sodo.
庫院(Kuin): There are kitchens and administrative office for the entire temple in Kuin.
山門(Sanmon): Sanmon literally means a mountain’s gate, but it refers to the main gate in Buddhism temples.
東司(Tousu): Tousu is rest rooms in Buddhism temples. According to the brochure of Eihei-ji, they have many manners that priests must follow. (Such as how to open the door, how to wash your hands, etc.)
浴室(Yokushitsu): It is a bathroom for priests. Taking a bath is one of their important training, and they purify their bodies and minds in a bathroom.
The atmosphere is peaceful, and it made me calm. My favorite place in Eihei-ji was 絵天井の間(E-tenjo no ma= a room with pictures painted on a ceiling). In the room, there are 230 beautiful goldish pictures on a ceiling that were painted in 1930 by 144 famous Japanese painters in the room. There’s a rumor that your wish would come true if you found the pictures of two carps, two legendary lions, and one squirrel.
Opening hours: 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Entrance fee is 500 yen for adult, and 200 yen for person who is under fifteen years old.
Access: There is a bus service called Keifuku-bus from Fukui station to Eihei-ji. It takes about thirty minutes, and it costs 720 yen per one person. (It is 360 yen for a child who is under twelve years old). Or you can take a bus from Eihei-ji-guchi station of Echizen railway/Katsuyama Eiheiji-line. It takes about thirteen minutes by bus and five minutes on foot.
There are many souvenir shops and restaurants in the street in front of Eiheiji. One of the famous food there is goma-tofu, which is made from sesame. I went to a restaurant in the street and tried goma-tofu served with sweet miso. Usually I eat tofu with soy sauce, so it was my first time to try tofu with miso. The goma-tofu was more flavorful than a normal tofu made from soy beans, and the texture was unique like jelly. I liked the combination of the goma-tofu and sweet miso very much.
I found a shop that sells a soft serve with goma-tofu. The shop’s name is OTONA COFFEE. The soft serve itself was vanilla flavor, and the topping was two small pieces of goma-tofu and sweet sesame sauce. I really liked it and want to eat the soft serve again! It costs 420 yen. The shop also sells normal soft serves such as vanilla, mix of vanilla and matcha, and matcha. (They cost 300 to 350 yen.)
Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time to check souvenir shops there. If you have a chance to go to around Eihei-ji, please let me know about shops and restaurants.