Skip to main content

Sōji-ji, the centre of Zen in eastern Japan

Sōji-ji is a bit of an odd duck, but it's a very calm, cheerful, wood-chopping, water-carrying duck.

It is, after all, one of Japan's two main Sōtō Zen temples. The famous one is Eihei-ji, which has everything one would expect: remote mountain location, mysterious forests, deep snow. Sōji-ji, on the other hand, is smack-bang in the middle of Tsurumi near Yokohama. It's an industrialized zone with identical apartment buildings and big companies like Toshiba, Nissan, Kirin and Asahi Glass. Not exactly conducive to shikantaza.
That's why I was a bit skeptical when I visited it, but … it won me over very quickly. It's a training temple, and monks carry on with their duties despite a steady stream of visitors. I'm used to Zen temples and monks who ignore you – vow of silence and ascetic seclusion and what-not – but not this bunch! Every one of them greeted me with a cheerful "konnichi wa" and a wide grin: the guys working in the garden, the guys sweeping the paths, the guys hurrying along the beautiful Hyakkenrōka (百間廊下) corridor, the guy ringing the big temple bell while joking with his friends.

I've never seen discipline combined with so much … not sure what word to use. Delight? Radiance? Gaiety? Even two visiting kindergarten groups – dear Buddha, toddlers are noisy – couldn't kill my ever-widening smile as I ambled, marvelled and explored for two hours.


I'm not going to retell the history in detail, because it's already been done to perfection on this website. (I linked to a cache, because the website itself seems to be down. I hope it's temporary, since that website is a goldmine of information about especially Kamakura's temples.) Essays in Idleness also has a very nice post.

Here's my own brief summary:

The founder of Sōtō Zen is Eihei Dōgen, who brought the religion from China to Japan during the 13th century and established a temple called Eihi-ji in Fukui.

The long corridor

It remained a fairly small, elitist faith until a monk called Keizan Jōkin started popularizing it and spreading it throughout the country and among all levels of Japanese society. Keizan established a temple called Sōji-ji on the Nota peninsula in Ishikawa, but the temple burned down in 1898. Zen leaders then decided to move the temple to eastern Japan, since western Japan already had Eihei-ji. I've read that Yokohama was chosen because it was a port with a thriving foreign community, and even back then the leaders wanted to give Zen a more international following.

That, gentle reader, explains why Sōji-ji is now located in Tsurumi. It opened in 1911, and it shares the responsibility of main Sōtō Zen temple in Japan with Eihei-ji. Today the religion has 15 000 sub-temples and 8 million followers throughout the world.

The buildings

It's a massive complex of 190 000 square meters, and as soon as you enter the main gate, you step into a forested area alive with bird song, chanting and … screaming toddlers. Fortunately they left relatively quickly, and there were few other visitors. Tranquility.

The complex has the required shichidō garan as well as several other buildings, a small Jizō temple, an Inari shrine and a Kannon statue.

The long corridor with a gate called Mukaikaramon (向唐門) in the background

My favourite structure is the Hyakkenrōka (百間廊下) corridor that stretches from east to west. It’s called the 100 ken corridor: ken is an old unit of length of 1.8 meters. Monks polish the floor by hand every day, which has made the wood as smooth as glass. You can see how they do it in this video, at 1:45, and yes, that's Sōji-ji.

The corridor has two parts: a raised wooden floor and a lower dirt level. It's also interrupted at certain places so that you can pass through. So simple, so beautiful.

The long corridor's floor is as smooth as glass.

Unsui statues

I'm quoting this from the website
Unsui is a word that consists of un (cloud) and sui (water). It denotes a mendicant priest, travelling across the country in search of Buddha teachings or great Zen masters. They go anywhere just like drifting clouds and flowing water. The statues [at Sōji-ji ] were carved in 1973 by Torao Yazaki (1904-1988), a famous sculptor in Japan, who studied sculpture in France under Ossip Zadkine (1890-1967). A replica also stands at Bois de Vincennes in Paris, donated by the Temple as a token to show friendship between Japan and France.

Ha! There's an Ossip Zadkine statue in Tokyo, too, on Chūō-Oohashi, a bridge across the Sumida River. It's called The Messenger, and it was donated to Tokyo by Paris. I wrote about it here.

More laughter

I arrived at the Big Temple Bell (to the left of the main entrance) just as it was rung, and again it was done with more laughter than I'd expected. It clearly requires effort, and the monk was grunting – and laughing – without inhibitions. He also has to shout / chant while he does it, and I could hear his voice cracking.

The big temple bell

I recorded him surreptitiously from a hiding place near a smaller Inari shrine. You can clearly his grunt and their laughter:

Go. You won't be sorry.

It's a beautiful temple, albeit in a very austere Zen way. You can join a guided tour, but it has to be booked the day before. English tours are available on Saturdays, but again it has to be booked prior to your visit. The temple itself is free; the tours are ¥400 per person.

The temple is very easy to get to: barely five minutes from Tsurumi Station on the Keihin-Tōhoku Line.

It's not as commercial as Sensō-ji, and there aren't exactly a thousand shops, but you'll receive the most beatific hellos this side of hippy heaven. Highly recommended.

The rest of the post is simply a collection of photos, starting at the entrance of the temple and progressing roughly chronologically through the complex. I didn't take any photos of interiors except the wide open corridor; I've never been comfortable photographing the interior of holy places.

The main entrance

Outer gate

The massive main gate, Sanmon

Sanmon seen from the hill on which the temple bell stands

Mukaikaramon (向唐門)

The long corridor

Praying at the Buddha hall

Main reception hall

Above small Inari shrine tucked into a corner of the complex, and below Jizō statues at a small Jizō temple

The neighbourhood around the temple isn't exactly pretty.

Popular posts from this blog

Higanbana, a flower of loss and longing

I love this flower. I love all flowers, but this one, ah, this one comes packaged with the most wonderful stories. Its scientific name is Lycoris radiata; in English it's red spider lily; in Japanese it has several names including higanbana (ヒガンバナ), in other words, autumn equinox flower.

It's also referred to as manjusaka (曼珠沙華), based on an old Chinese legend about two elves: Manju guarded the flowers and Saka the leaves, but they could never meet, because the plant never bears flowers and leaves at the same time. They were curious about each other, so they defied the gods' instructions and arranged a meeting. I assume it was not via Twitter. The gods promptly punished them, as gods are wont to do, and separated them for all eternity.
To this day, the red lily is associated with loss, longing, abandonment and lost memories in hanakotoba(花言葉), the language of flowers. It's believed that if you meet a person you'll never see again, these flowers will grow along your…

Edo wind chimes: air con for your soul

Have you noticed that Japan has a thing about bells?
Watch people's phones: every second phone charm has a little bell that jingles with the slightest movement. There are bells on doors and bells at shrines and bells at temples. There are bells on traditional hair ornaments called bira-bira kanzashi, bamboo chimes tuned DFGA for your garden, bells are a symbol of peace (link) and their sound echoes the impermanence of all things (link).
From which one could correctly deduce that peace is ever transient.
Now, before I get sidetracked down a thousand rabbit holes, let’s focus on the real topic: bells, yes, but specifically wind chimes or fūrin(風鈴).

I would not to mine own self be true if I didn't include a little history lesson. Here we go:
The oldest wind chimes found at archeological sites in South East Asia are 5000 years old. These early versions were made from wood, bones and shells; and were probably used to keep birds out of cultivated fields and/or to ward off evil spirits.

This is what my language sounds like

A while ago I promised I would do a post about Afrikaans songs. Oh dear. It's more work than I thought it would be, and it's aggravated by the fact that I've lost touch with contemporary culture in South Africa. (Please don't ask me about Die Antwoord. I don't get it. I don't want to get it.) So for now, while I continue my research, I've selected two golden oldies that are very natsukashii (that's a Japanese word for "dear" or "missed") to me. You'll notice the central themes that unite these songs: an abiding love for Africa, as well as loss and longing.
Quick recap: Afrikaans, my mother tongue, is a South African language developed from 17th century Dutch. It has adopted words from Malay, Khoisan and Bantu languages, but 90% of its vocabulary is of Dutch origin. Yes, I understand Dutch (with a bit of effort) and Flemish (easily). Afrikaans has about 6 million native speakers.
Tomorrow we return our focus to Japan. Tonight, son…

The princess who loved insects

Edit added 8 May 2013: This post receives so many keyword search hits for "The Princess Who Loved Insects" that I've published an updated post (with extra information) that focuses on the book. Click here to read it.)

Blogging has been an interesting experiment. I initially started two blogs, Rurousha for personal musings and Sanpokatagata for factual stories accompanied by photos. I've now decided I'll do all stories on this blog, regardless of the content, and turn Sanpo into a supplementary photo blog. I'm not sure it's a good idea, since I'm not a good photographer at all, but let's see how it goes.
It occurred to me that "nomad" is not the ideal name for my blog. I don't wander anymore; I want to live in Japan forever and ever amen till death do us part. Then I remembered that I've already stayed in six different apartments in Tokyo and although most of my income is derived from one company, I've been based in three diff…

Call it remorse

Something out of memory walks toward us,
something that refutes
the dictionary, that won’t roost
in the field guide. Something that once flew
and now must trudge. Call it grief,
trailing its wings like a shabby overcoat,
like a burnt flag. Call it ghost.
Call it aftermath. Call it remorse
for its ability to bite and bite
again. — Don McKay, from “Angel of Extinction,” Angular Unconformity: Collected Poems 1970-2014 (Icehouse Poetry, 2014)

The Princess Who Loved Insects (updated)

My blog gets so many search keyword hits about this particular topic that I've decided to update an old post about the Japenese story The Princess Who Loved Insects(虫めづる姫君Mushi Mezuru Himegimi).

It's contained in Tales of the Riverside Middle Counselor (堤中納言物語Tsutsumi Chūnagon Monogatari), a collection of short stories written in the late Heian period. It focuses on the adventures of a young girl who refuses to make herself beautiful and play the courtship game. She doesn't blacken her teeth and pluck her eyebrows (as refined ladies did in those days); instead, she spends her time outdoors, playing with bugs and caterpillars.

I refer to her as Ms Mushi (Ms Insect).  A girl this tough is definitely not a prim prissy Miss, she's a ballsy Ms. She's my favourite Japanese heroine. She's strong, she's rebellious, she refuses to pretend, she ignores society's stupid rules that fetter women. You go, girl! Long live caterpillar eyebrows!

Donald Keene mentions in hi…

Hiking along the old Tōkaidō in Hakone

How in heaven's name did Edo travellers walk long this road …

over this pass …

wearing straw sandals?!

Last week I walked along the old Tōkaidō (東海道East Sea Road) in Hakone while The Hero was trolling¹ for trout on Lake Ashi (芦ノ湖Ashinoko). I did it in sturdy hiking boots, and although my feet weren't disgruntled, they weren't entirely gruntled either, if I may paraphrase P.G. Wodehouse.

It was the first time I visited Hakone, and I enjoyed it so much that I'll just have to go again. Since The Hero agrees with me, I predict more Hakone posts, but this one will focus on my first trip's main goal: following the Tōkaidō, the road that connected Edo and Kyoto. The old road has been replaced by modern highways² and high-speed railways, but you can still walk along the original route between Moto-Hakone (800 meters above sea level) and Hakone-Yumoto (80 meters above sea level), a distance of about 10 km. The sea levels should warn you that it's a steep route.
I didn't…

The ultimate guide to Kanda Myojin

I'm floundering. I don't know how to start a post about Kanda Myōjin (神田明神), because how do you choose a highlight from this collection below?
The decapitated head of a rebellious samurai who's still haunting Ōtemachi is buried in the vicinity, and his deified spirit is enshrined here.It's been called the world's geekiest shrine thanks to its proximity to otaku heaven Akihabara. The shrine has a Facebook, Twitter and LINE account.You can see some extremely generously endowed young ladies on the shrine's ema.It has a horse. A real horse. A tiny living breathing pony.Birds protect it against fire.
See my problem? Where do I start the ultimate guide to the ultimate shrine?

Why Kanda Myōjin?
Let's be boring and kick off with my own connection with Kanda Myōjin, which is very simple: I've always lived within walking distance of the shrine. My first four years in Tokyo were spent in Kanda, blissfully close to the book district Jinbōchō, and I frequently passed …

Hiking along the Mitake Valley in Okutama

I'm lying. Exaggerating. It's not hiking; it's walking.

As a matter of fact, the Mitake Valley Riverside Trail has given me a new definition of walking vs hiking: if you encounter vending machines along the way, it's walking, not hiking.
I've done several hikes in Okutama, but I'm going to start with this walk because anybody can do it. It's exceptionally beautiful, truly pleasant and very easy. You don't need to be an experienced hiker, you don't need hiking boots, you don't need energy drinks – or Scotch – to keep going.

It starts at Ikusabata Station on the Ōme Line, follows the Tama River and ends about 5 km upstream. It took me about two hours of slow walking, many photos, frequent diversions and arbitrary stops to enjoy the autumn colours.
Let's do this section by section. Warning: this post is photo-heavy!
Ikusabata to Sawai

It takes 90 minutes from Tokyo Station. Take the Chūō Line to Ōme, transfer to the Ōme Line and get off at Ikusab…

Hi, Keanu! Here's the real story of the 47 rōnin.

Chūshingura(忠臣蔵). Is there anyone in Japan – nay, the world! – who doesn't know this story? It's been told in novels, kabuki, bunraku, films and TV shows, and now Keanu Reeves has tackled it in his movie 47 Rōnin.
When I first heard about the film, I was thrilled, but now that I've seen the trailer … uh-oh. It's a fantasy-adventure-martial arts mishmash that can't decide whether it's Star Wars, The Matrix or The Last Samurai; but perhaps the full-length feature is better than the trailer.

Everybody will be talking about it, though, so let's look at the real story of the 47 rōnin. It's based on historical facts. As briefly as possible this is what happened in 1701:
A country baron called Asano Naganori was appointed by the shōgun to receive the emperor's ambassadors. Since Asano was unfamiliar with court etiquette, a higher-ranking nobleman called Kira Yoshinaka was instructed to act as his mentor. Then disaster struck: Asano tried to assassinate Kira. …