That’s So Zen – A Relaxing Retreat in Fukui, Japan’s Meditation Mecca

by Jeremy
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Fukui Buddha statue

When one thinks of traditional Japan, Kyoto probably comes to the minds of many and for good reason. It’s packed to the gills with temple after temple and plays an integral role in the history and shaping of Japan. Its popularity is up there along with its big brother Tokyo and its neighbour Osaka, but that does come with its own complications for such a small city. 

You might be thinking ‘why are you writing so much about Kyoto? Isn’t this about Fukui?’ Yes, it is! Let me explain! Yes, Kyoto is a great place to visit. I’ve been there at least twice, once way before COVID (where I had my first unfortunate run-in with a traditional Japanese toilet) and luckily enough once during.

I say luckily because travelling during that weird period of history offered something that Kyoto simply cannot offer anymore: A leisurely and calm tour of some of its top tourist attractions. This is where Fukui shines. If you’re looking for something very similar, but much quieter and far less busy, consider Fukui as an alternative and see a less tourist and more ‘real’ part of Japan.  

With its own Shinkansen (bullet train) station opening up next year, it’s set to be a more popular tourist spot in the future and the locals are thinking on how to make Fukui a strong contender for tourists, so there is much to look forward to!

A few months ago I was invited to join a special two-day group tour of the area to experience just a small taste of what it has to offer. It was a 2-hour train ride from Nagoya, which in itself is a little adventure, and can be easily accessed from Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, even without the Shinkansen. Whizzing through mountains, trees and fields is a great way to see Japan and the views we saw along the way told us that we were definitely leaving the city. Upon arrival we were greeted by our guide and translator, who instantly whisked us away to our first destination, Yokoen Garden.  

Yokoen Garden and the house in Fukui viewed from across the pond.

Yokoen Garden 

Within the relatively urbane part of Fukui city, Yokoen Garden offers a quiet relief with its traditional Japanese garden. The house was built in the early 17th century in a very formal style prominent during that period and is surrounded by a beautiful Japanese garden that encircles a large pond that is full of Koi carp who are eager to approach any visitor for a chance of some fish food.

The house itself is decorated with some old artwork and ornaments and offers a quiet place to sit and relax while enjoying the view of the garden from inside, which if you are able to do at night, offers a clear view of the moon and its reflection on the water as it rises and sets for the night.  

After a quick lunch at a nearby restaurant (that offered some very filling vegetarian options for those inclined such as myself), we made our way to one of Fukui’s most popular locations, Eiheiji Temple.  

A vegetarian dish of radish, sweet potato and other vegetables served in a black shallow bowl.

Eiheiji Temple 

Nestled amidst the serene mountains, away from the city centre, lies Eiheiji Temple—aptly named the Temple of Eternal Peace. Established by Zen Master Dogen in 1244, this sacred sanctuary remains dedicated to the teachings of Soto Zen. During our enlightening visit, our knowledgeable guide, a revered Buddhist monk, shed light on the essence of Soto Zen—a philosophy urging contentment with life’s modest offerings and the pursuit of tranquillity through a minimalist lifestyle.

Statue outside of Eiheiji Temple.

The wisdom imparted encourages us to temper our desires, akin to maintaining the satisfaction level of a teaspoon. Instead of an unceasingly overflowing bowl, symbolic of insatiable cravings, Soto Zen invites us to find joy and fulfilment in the seemingly ordinary aspects of existence. Embrace the beauty of simplicity and savour the profound peace that arises from appreciating life’s understated pleasures.

A ceiling inside Eiheiji temple decorated with many different pieces of art.

Exploring Eiheiji is an absolute must for anyone fascinated by Buddhism and Japanese history. This sacred site holds deep significance in the region’s religious landscape, captivating both devotees and curious individuals alike. The museum, a treasure trove of historical insights, unveils the pivotal figures who shaped its narrative.

While the temple graciously welcomes visitors, it’s crucial to respect the sanctity of certain restricted areas and adhere to established rules. Resist the urge to wander through the gardens or interrupt the monks for a quick selfie. The tranquillity that envelops the temple is an integral part of its charm, interrupted only by sporadic camera shutters. For an unparalleled experience, consider wandering the grounds at night when the stillness reaches its zenith, offering a truly serene and calming atmosphere.

The quaint village in the vicinity boasts a few souvenir shops, although, regrettably, they were consistently closed during my visit. Nonetheless, these establishments seem promising and are undoubtedly worth exploring during their operational hours. Fortunately, one particular shop welcomed us, providing the opportunity to craft our own Buddhist meditation cushions, known as Zafu, using recycled Kimono fabrics. These personalised Zafus would accompany us during the remaining activities of the tour.

The Zafu with the name of the maker written in Kanji.
I still use my Zafu for occasional meditation now and again.

With the prospect of an early 5 AM meeting the next day, a disciplined routine of early bedtime and rising ensued. Following a delectable course meal at the Hakujukan hotel, a relaxing dip in the hotel’s very own Rotenburo (outdoor bath) under the gentle rainfall, and a serene session of Zazen practice prepared me for a restful night. Curled up with a copy of “The Teachings of Buddha,” the tranquil night offered a companionable end to the day.

A bright orange copy of the book titled "The Teaching of Buddha".
Greed rises from the wrong ideas of satisfaction – wise words, indeed. I even bought a copy!

Morning Meditation in Fukui – Mt Shukuyama and Daibutsuji 

Embracing the tranquillity of a new day, the gentle morning sun filtered through the paper Fusuma sliding doors, making waking up much easier than I expected! The serene soundtrack of a nearby stream and the melodic murmurings of birds perched in the surrounding trees set the perfect stage for our stay at a strategically located hotel, which, despite its higher cost, proved to be an ideal choice. The hotel provided excellent breakfast and dinner and also offered a very satisfying vegetarian option

Inside the hotel room with a small floor table and two chairs and the beds to the right. In the background is the paper sliding doors (Fusuma).

Our day began with a return to Eiheiji, where we eagerly observed the monks engrossed in their morning meditation rituals. The quiet corridors of the temple were imbued with a surreal atmosphere as a monk, bell in hand, briskly signalled the commencement of the service. Though we were invited to participate, the intricacies of the chants proved challenging, even with a helpful ‘English’ version. Nevertheless, the experience of witnessing the mesmerising ritual, with cameras strictly forbidden, is a captivating encounter best savoured in person.

A hiker ready for the day's hike. He is wearing a traditional Japanese Jinbei and Kasa hat. He is smiling and is pressing his hands together as a greeting.

Post-service, we retrieved the Zafu cushions crafted the day before and gathered in the hotel lobby to receive our distinctive Kasa hats, an essential accessory for our ascent of Mt Shukuyama. The hiking enthusiast in me was delighted by the trail—a gratifying blend of challenge and accessibility. While the path teemed with fascinating insects, the elusive deer remained hidden from view but their cries were heard throughout the hike. Reaching the summit, we took a leisurely break and enjoyed lunch before settling onto our Zafu cushions for a personalised Zazen meditation session.

A close-up image of a mantis.

For the adventurous souls among us, an opportunity awaited to explore the site of Dogen’s original temple, weathered by the passage of time. The historical backdrop of how Dogen introduced Zen Buddhism from China through Kyoto unfolded, adding a layer of awe to the overall experience. The hike is completely accessible without the need of a guide, but his knowledge of the area and its history and his own experience made the trip much more meaningful.

Some of the group are hiking down through the woods towards the Dogen's temple.

A Cracking Time at Kippoji Temple 

Concluding our enriching journey, we embarked on a delightful mini-hike through lush woodlands that led us to the serene Kippoji temple. The verdant surroundings set the stage for an immersive exploration of the temple grounds and its sacred interiors. Stepping inside, we were treated to a unique opportunity to partake in Zazen meditation guided by the resident monk.

A monk is standing next to a large drum. He is smiling.
He was all smiles until he got his stick out!

Within the hallowed walls, the monk’s watchful eye ensured the integrity of our postures, and by giving the signal to the sedimentary monk, a cracking whack on the shoulder would put us right. (Some people asked more than once!) Surprisingly, the experience proved to be remarkably tranquil, highlighting the monks’ incredible ability to sustain such meditative positions for extended periods.

I’ll openly confess that, after a while, my legs began to tingle with numbness—a small sacrifice for a glimpse into the profound stillness and discipline of this ancient practice. The serenity of the surroundings and the rhythmic cadence of the monk’s guidance combined to create a truly immersive and introspective conclusion to our remarkable tour.

A lavishly adorned Buddhist alter of gold and red.
The temple was a real treat – there was so much to look at!

What I experienced really was just a small taste of what this region has to offer and I absolutely plan to go back for another visit in the future. There are so many other things that I want to see there, such as the Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum and a number of other popular hiking spots along with its fantastic coastlines to the west that are popular to beach-goers in the summer. Once the new Shinkansen line is operational, no doubt it will become busier than ever, my only hope is that it doesn’t become too busy, enabling it to keep hold of what makes it so special.

For those looking for more travel inspiration in Japan, please check out our Travel section, where you can find more information on off the beaten path locations in Tohoku such as our guide on the best things to do in Aizu Wakamatsu, or our comprehensive guide of Ghibli Park and the Grand Warehouse.

If you have travelled to Fukui recently and visited any of the places in this article, please do let us know about your experiences in the comments section below.

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