All about Zen!

Zen meditation has become one of Japan’s most successful exports, ranking up there with cars and Sailor Moon, yet its apparent simplicity makes it all the more mysterious and compelling. There are several places in Japan where you can try meditation, but few where you can ask the monk all kinds of questions about his traditions and everyday life, as well as eat delicious monastic food! It is not surprising, then, that the visit to a Zen temple is one of our most popular options.

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The temple is located at the top of an old stone staircase (but don’t worry, there is also a road up if you prefer!)
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Many stone Buddhas keep watch as you climb.
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“Welcome to my temple!”

The monk may not quite fit with your idea of a Zen practitioner: he is relatively young, and very approachable. However, he has completed studies not only in meditation, but also in temple cuisine.

Before the meditation session, he shows visitors around his temple.

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The temple is centuries old, and serves the local community
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Explaining how he conducts the daily services. The round gong is in the shape of a fish, which always keeps its eyes open, even while sleeping, and is a symbol of how believers should always be aware.
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Chanting the sutras

He even shows us the kitchen and living area.

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The dinner gong!
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A monk’s living room is picturesque but not luxurious…

Finally, it is time to try Zen meditation…

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The meditation area, with the necessary equipment: tatami mats and black cushions
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Demonstrating the correct way to sit. It is not as easy as it looks!

Zen practitioners usually meditate for around 40 minutes at a time, but beginners usually try around 10. Be careful not to let your concentration slip, however; otherwise, you will be rapped on the shoulder!

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Luckily, the teacher does not look too scary, even with that big stick!

After all that concentration, the reward is the temple lunch! Buddhist cuisine is vegetarian and does not use a lot of strong seasonings, but it is delicious and perhaps provides a welcome change after days of rich ryokan food… While you are eating, you have the chance to ask the monk all kinds of questions about his daily life and Buddhist customs.

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Temple cuisine may be simple, but it is not plain or austere

So why not add this temple visit to your next trip to Japan? We cannot promise that you will find enlightenment, but you are sure to come away with a deeper understanding of Japanese Buddhist tradition.

 

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Kendo: learn about the true spirit of Japanese martial arts

Japanese martial arts have become popular around the world, but here in their home, they are not just sports, but art and philosophy as well. Two of our guides, Chiho and Emma, recently went to a kendo practice to learn more and to prepare to show our guests this fascinating martial art.

The teacher, Ito-sensei, has long experience and teaches everyone from children to adults who have themselves already reached the seventh dan (only one level from the top), making the sessions at his dojo fascinating to watch. In between conducing rigorous training, he kindly answered many of our questions.

Q. You seem to have several high-level students in your dojo. Is kendo strong in Niigata Prefecture?
A. Yes, it is. I think it flourished particularly in the former castle towns.

Q. How old is kendo?
A. It’s difficult to say exactly, but wooden swords were introduced during the Edo Period. Even then, however, people sometimes died during practice, and so now we use swords made of bamboo.

Q. How about your mask? Tell us about that.
A. These flaps are made of a kind of fibre that is compressed very hard, several centimetres of it, and then stitched to become firm. Women used to be employed to sew these by hand, but no longer. This mask was made in Japan, but the stitching was done overseas. The cheapest masks are entirely made overseas, but of course the quality is not the same. Nowadays, if you want a mask made in Japan from start to finish, you need to order it. The craftsman will measure your face and make it to fit you. The position of these bars across the front is particularly important: if they are at eye-level, you won’t be able to see out properly. There are few craftsman left, so it takes them several months to finish your mask: by the time it arrives, you’ve probably forgotten that you ordered it! I have had this mask for about thirty years, but I don’t use it every day; I use various different masks, so they last longer.

Kendo mask and wooden swords hanging on a wall
Kendo mask and wooden swords

Q. Why do you slide your feet across the floor instead of walking normally?
A. Just before we strike, we lift up our foot. We need to be ready to strike at any time, so we usually keep both feet on the floor, to maintain our balance.

Q. When you’re hit, does it hurt?
A. A little bit, but not too much.
[One of the students looks unsure about this]
He thinks it does hurt! He always flinches before my sword hits him…

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Demonstrating a move

Q. When you are engaged in a practice bout, how do you decide when it is over?
A. The student will tell the teacher when he feels that he has reached the end of his strength. Younger practitioners will sometimes end with one last attack, but for older people like us, we tend to say when we want to stop.

Kendo practitioner wearing mask and gloves and holding his sword
Dressed in full gear, ready for a bout

Q. Kendo is popular overseas now. What do you think about this?
A. When Japanese martial arts become popular overseas, they become more widely-known, which is good; but at the same time, they have to change somewhat in order to become sports. “Sports” are about scoring points, winning and losing, but in kendo, the way someone moves is equally important. It’s about art, and about the way you concentrate your whole spirit. Other martial arts like karate have asked to be included in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, but kendo has not volunteered; I think that this is the reason why.
I’ve sometimes been asked to go overseas to teach, but I’m too busy here…

Q. At the end of the session, after the students bow to you, you all turn and bow towards the front of the dojo, then towards the right. Who are you bowing to?
A. First we bow to our teachers who came before us, those who are no longer here. We acknowledge that there are greater teachers than us. Then we turn in the direction of the kamidana (the god-shelf), to pay our respects to the god of the dojo.

Kendo teacher and students kneel, facing each other and with eyes closed
Students and teacher alike pay their respects at the end of the session

Guests to Itoigawa can watch these fascinating training sessions, try on the kendo gear, try out the moves and, if they have some prior experience, even join the practice! So why not experience kendo with an expert?

 

Coming soon: Snow Country winter experience tour!

Here at Kotobuki, we are always thinking about new experiences that we can offer to our guests. At the moment, guests visit us from spring to autumn, but that leaves Itoigawa’s most famous season: winter! Located in the heart of the Snow Country, on the Japan Sea coast, Itoigawa is guaranteed to have plenty of snow. This will allow guests to experience various unique activities, including walking in the snowy landscape with snowshoes, building a snow cave under the guidance of an expert, seeing the architectural style developed to keep off the snow, viewing a beautiful formal garden in the snow, and visiting Niigata Prefecture’s oldest sake brewery at the height of the brewing season. Of course, they will also be able to relax in a natural hot spring after their time in the snow, and they will enjoy Itoigawa’s delicious seafood, which is at its best in this season. We can also offer various other options to allow them to make the most of their experience, including traditional music, Shiatsu massage, and skiing!

 

Winter scene of Mt Amakazari
Come and walk in this snow!

We are really excited about developing this new offer, and recently we visited Mizuno-san, our Snow Country expert, to talk about the possibilities. Mizuno-san is originally from Kyoto, but moved to Itoigawa 15 years ago. He has long experience working in forestry, and so he knows the woods very well in all seasons. As well as leading snowshoe expeditions and constructing snow caves, he can tell guests all about the local nature. As if this wasn’t enough, he is also an accomplished potter, and has built his own wood-fired kiln. So he can also offer pottery experiences to guests who are interested in Japanese crafts. We are very much looking forward to working with him, and to welcoming our first guests to the Snow Country!

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Some of Mizuno-san’s pottery displayed in his home