At 5:30 in the morning comes the sound of wood striking wood. The sound is that of the moppan (a large wooden plate not too dissimilar to a cutting board) summoning the monks to the temple. The pace of the tapping builds slowly until there is one decisive final blow. This is how each day begins at Erin-ji Temple (established in 1330) in Oyashiki (Koshu), Yamanashi. The recitation of the sutras begins once the monks have assembled in the main hall of the temple. For forty minutes the chanting continues as the early morning light reveals itself through the large open door behind the Roshi (head monk). I stare at the flickering candle at the center of the temple and try to ignore the discomfort I feel from sitting cross-legged for such a long time. At one point in the middle of the chanting, the monk next to me offers me a copy of the sutras and I have to politely explain that I can’t read kanji characters.
Many Japanese temples are cluttered with ostentatious paraphernalia, but not this temple. Erin-ji is the epitome of Japanese minimalism. The temple has subtle beauty. The tapestry hanging before the main alter is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen, with the family emblem of Takeda Shingen (1521-1573), and 2 elaborate silk knots that are twisted into a design that is as intriguing as it is aesthetically pleasing. After reciting the sutras, the head monk opens sliding shoji (Japanese paper) doors to reveal a large garden that dates back to the founding of the temple.
To the left of the main temple building there is an annex that leads to the final resting place of Takeda Shingen, one of the greatest warriors from Japan’s Warring States period of the 15th and 16th centuries. The approach to his grave has a nightingale floor that announces your every movement to the resting warrior.
On the morning of my visit there was a rare fog that enveloped the temple grounds. Even the head monk couldn’t resist the opportunity to take some photos.
Later, the monks and I sat down to a simple breakfast of rice gruel with ginkgo nuts, miso paste, pickled radish, pickled plums, pickled onions, and fish cake. What struck me most about the meal was how we mostly ate in silence. We ate with the kind of concentration that one would expect from someone writing an examination. When you eat, you eat.
After the meal was finished, we sat and chatted for what seemed like an hour. Again, we gave our full attention to the task. The head monk was very animated as we discussed the finer points of Japanese hospitality. He explained that true Japanese hospitality relies on both the host and the guest fulfilling what seem on the surface to be quite ridged roles. However, in the execution, just as in karate or any other martial art, a true master of hospitality makes it look effortless and beautiful. In this way, hospitality becomes a shared meditative experience. We also discussed the seasonal sensibility of Japanese cuisine. Eating seasonally is a practice that the Japanese cherish so much that the pursuit can become almost obsessive. The head monk was quick to point out that seasonal produce is not only the tastiest, but also the healthiest. It is easy to forget in this globalized world that eating apples from half a world away may not be that healthy for us.
Finally, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the head monk speaks excellent English. I look forward to visiting Erin-ji Temple often. It is truly one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited.
You can access Erin-ji Temple from JR Shinjuku Station in just under 1.5 hours by taking an express train to JR Enzan Station on the JR Chuo Line. Once you arrive in Enzan, take the Nishizawa-Keikoku-bound bus from the south exit of JR Enzan Station. Get off at the Erin-ji-mae stop.
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