Last week, on a beautiful autumn day, Next Japan Travel visited Kyoto’s Shunkō-in temple in order to experience a genuine Zen meditation class.
Shunkō-in Temple is a Zen Buddhist temple located in Kyoto’s Myōshin-ji temple complex. It was established by the daimyo (feudal lord) Horio Yoshiharu in 1590 in honor of his son. Almost every day between 09:00 to 10:30, Rev. Takafumi Kawakami, the vice abbot of the temple, holds Zen meditation classes and guided tours of the temple in English.
After arriving at the entrance and taking off our shoes, we were guided to a tatami-mat Japanese room within the temple. Here we could choose between sitting on pillows on the tatami floor, or regular chairs in the back. Some had arrived early, and everyone was waiting in silence. The only sounds heard were the sounds of the electrical fan as well as quiet talking from behind the Japanese paper sliding doors. Suddenly, Rev. Kawakami entered the room and immediately began his introduction of Zen Buddhism, mindfulness, history and the workings of the human brain. During the introduction we were encouraged to relax and take a comfortable sitting position as “meditation is not about who can take the most pain”. Many rapidly loosened up their legs in relief. After hearing the clapping sound of two wooden clappers, the meditation began, followed by 4 chiming sounds from the “O-rin” bell. Complete silence and the scent of incense was all that was present in the room for the next 20 minutes. Rev. Kawakami, almost resembling a stone statue, solemnly sat still with eyes one couldn’t tell if were open or shut. From out of nowhere, the bell and clapping sound was heard again, we bowed, and the meditation was over.
Having been lectured about mindfulness and meditation and how to use it in our everyday life, we took another 5-minute meditation session before having a beautiful temple tour. In the tour we were told how the temple came to be, its structure, and the people and history behind. Especially interesting was it that within the garden of this Zen Buddhist temple, two of the most significant Shinto kami (deity) Toyouke Omikami and Amaterasu Omikami were enshrined. It turns out that Shunkō-in has connections with the Grand Shrine of Ise (head shrine of all shrines in Japan) which the garden actually represents. Additionally, the temple hosts a rare artifact which was not part of the tour. After asking nicely however, the front lady guided us promptly into the heart of the temple where she opened up an old sliding door. The door lead us into a dusty, almost forgotten, room with figurines from a different era. There hangs the Bell of Nanban-ji church, which was the first Christian church established in Kyoto. The bell was made in Portugal in 1577 and has been kept in Shunkō-in for roughly 200 years.
When the tour was over, we were guided to another room where we could sit and enjoy a welcoming cup of hot green tea and Japanese snack. Rev. Kawakami kindly gave us some clever tips about how to brew green tea before he vanished as suddenly as he had appeared…