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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.

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