Before I went to Japan I knew I wanted to do zen meditation, so I did some research to find some alternatives. There weren’t that many options for tourists, but I did find some, mostly in Kyoto.
The three experiences I had were all different and each of them were good in their own way: I learnt a lot about zazen and how to incorporate some of the practices in my routine.
The first zazen session I attended was at Shourinji. Bizarrely, I got bitten by a scary mukade centipede not long before I was due to get there, but I thought the meditation could help calm me down (it did). The session was all in Japanese but you get a handout in English explaining everything.
It was a good session and the place was packed (there were maybe 50 people there). As is usual in these sessions, you meditate 15 minutes twice, and that is followed by a dharma talk and some green tea.
This temple is located close to some other sights, so it’s a good one to go to. You just need to email them in advance to check their availability and pay Y1000 on arrival (a cheaper fee than the other sessions I attended).
I’d been following Shunkoin’s website for months before going to Japan, and it was the top place I wanted to visit for zazen. They run sessions for 1h30 almost daily, including a tour of the temple grounds and tea afterwards (you pay Y2500).
The best thing about it is that Rev. Takafumi Kawakami not only gives a dharma talk in English, but also he translates the concepts and the practice of zazen into Western concepts, making it really relevant to the audience.
When I visited he spoke at length about the concept of homoeostasis and how it prevents people from breaking their preconceptions (for instance, even after he said you don’t need to be cross-legged for zazen, most people still chose to sit like that, because it complies with the image they have of meditation).
He also talked about the difficulties everyone has in concentrating and related that to big data – I might well have found my guru!
My last zazen session was at Nanyoji, which I found through this website. The zen master Rev. Keiho Nishigaki agreed to pick me up at Hyoruji station (close to Nara) and drove me to his temple. There were four other people there, all of them locals who come for the zazen most Saturday evenings.
He explained all the formalities to me in English before we started. After the session, we had tea and biscuits and he drove me back to the station (with some more biscuits to take with me).
This was the most authentic experience I had with zazen, as it was clearly a temple for locals, most of them rice farmers. It was great to learn more about the formal aspects of zazen (such as the greetings and how to get on and off the tatami). It was also great to be welcomed in a temple that is not there just for tourists.
To book, you need to email in advance. The suggested donation is Y3000 and that also includes some Soto Zen books.
When I spend a good amount of time in a place I like to experience something local, and zazen is definitely something to try in Japan, as you get to see temples in a completely different way.