Tag: Japan

Story of the week: The Zen calm of a Japanese temple stay


* Image from shannonisherenow.wordpress.com

I needed to take some time out.

The fast pace of life in Japan had left my mind as cluttered as a student bedsit, a confusion of email addresses, credit card bills and mental to-do lists.

It was a Japanese friend of mine who said they had the perfect answer: head for a traditional Japanese shukubo (temple lodging) where, not only could I relax, but do so while learning the art of zazen (sitting) meditation.

The idea of a spiritual retreat in a remote mountain setting sounded idea. I would, I thought I as I packed, come back rested, refreshed and with a new-found sense of who I am and why I am here.

Nirvana was just a weekend break away.

Mountain retreat

A few days later found me sweating on the side of mountain outside Kyoto.

From out of the woodland, a shaven-headed monk approached. “You must be looking for Hosen-ji,” he gestured towards a clearing, his long blue robes parting to reveal a bony finger.

His voice sounded calm. Calmer than someone who had just spent the afternoon on Prozac in a flotation tank. “Please,” he breathed, oozing serenity from every pore of his meticulously shaven head, “come this way.”

Hosen-ji is one of hundreds of shukubo dotted around Japan.

It operates an open-door policy to short term residents and a gaijin-friendly attitude to potential converts and the downright curious alike.

They aim to promote Zen and introduce first-timers to the ways of temple life. Some go on to enrol in monasteries. Most, however, simply go back to the rat race feeling better for some time out and having stocked up on food for thought about a higher spiritual purpose to life.

In the past, wannabe monks had to prostrate themselves at the front gate for three days while the resident monks shunned him.

They would then be condemned to trial by solitary meditation for a further two days while temple denizens kept watch to check on their diligence.

Only then would they be invited to join a strict monastic life of five hours sleep per night, a rudimentary vegetarian diet, endless meditation and a shot at the big money prize: enlightenment.

All that is required of today’s Zen master wannabes is a nominal fee to cover board and lodgings and zealous adherence to the temple rules.

It sounds easy but, if you’re a bit of a party animal, then go elsewhere.

The temple grounds are strictly a vice-free zone, your attendance is compulsory for 150 minute of zazen meditation per day and, if you’re not flat out on your futon dreaming of Buddha by lights out at 10pm each night, then the head monk will be asking questions.

Meditation chamber

The Hosen-ji temple specialises in welcoming the Zen newcomer and, as such, acts a toe in the waters of Buddhism compared to the performing zazen under icy waterfalls as practised by some of the more hard line shukubo.

It also welcomes foreigners, Asians and Japanese nationals in equal measure. The schedule allocates everyone to work around the grounds in the morning on equal terms and guests are encouraged to chat openly rather than obey a strict silence.

Each night at 8pm, there is a 90-minute zazen session. As the new kind on the block, Iku-san, the only English-speaking monk, gave me the crash course as preparation.

Zazen, he explained, dates from the 12th century and came to Japan from China. To achieve enlightenment, one must free the mind, stripping all away all thoughts and distractions so you are numb to outside stimuli.

To me, it sounded a bit like a Celine Dion concert.

“Some people come here to develop their character, others to deal with problems in their personal lives.”

“We had one woman whose fiancee had cancelled the wedding at the last minute, leaving her emotionally distraught. We even have parents dropping off their problem children here like we’re a summer camp,” he explained as we took our positions in the meditation chamber.

Mind control

Iku-san told me to count my breaths as a means to clear my mind.

The students filed in silently while a monk beat a staccato rhythm on a block of wood and, after a short reading from Buddhist scripture, the peel of small hand bell signalled the start of zazen time.

I closed my eyes and tried to tune into the moment. Unfortunately, I felt like I’d already turned on, tuned in and dropped off before most of the faithful had even finished arranging their feet in contortionist-like positions.

Iku-san had told me that after 25 minutes there would be a five-minute break to stretch aching limbs.

After five minutes, my legs felt numb and painful. After ten, they were ready for amputation, the only distraction coming when, at the 20-minute mark, I had an overwhelming urge to sneeze.

The second session commenced with another ring of the bell and was interrupted after 50 minutes when the Zen master came around with a large wooden stick (the keisaku) to administer voluntary thwacks to anyone finding themselves nodding off during their pursuit for inner peace.

The keisaku ritual is an integral part of zazen. I bowed before the Zen master and presented my shoulder to indicate my state of readiness before accepting two sharp taps.

I bowed again as a gesture of gratitude and promptly returned to my meditative state, my mind freshly focused on the intense stinging in my shoulder blades.

After zazen and with a hour to go to bedtime, I grabbed a few words with my fellow guests.

Kento, a 28-year-old furniture maker from suburban Tokyo, had come out of curiosity and was finding the meditation tough going. “It’s very painful on your legs,” he grimaced, rubbing his shins.

“It’s meant to get easier with practice but, right now, I’m in agony.”

Mai, a 25-year-old office worker from Yokohama had already spent three weeks at Hosen-ji and was considering enrolling in a monastery.

“I came because I wanted to see the real me,” she said as we unpacked the futons for bed. “I feel very peaceful when I meditate but find it hard to empty my mind.”

Morning routine

The next morning’s routine made the previous night seem like a stroll in the park and seriously tested my will.

The routine is fixed: a 5.30am alarm call is followed by sutra chanting and tai chi to warm up for another 60 minutes of zazen. Then there’s sweeping the grounds to be done before breakfast at 8am.

But, far from light relief, I found the meal to be the hardest part of the whole zazen experience.

The shojin-ryori (temple food) consisted of watery rice served and eaten to an exacting set of rituals in agonising silence with monks and guests sat in pairs along a huge low table.

Of course, being the new boy, I had to sit bang opposite the head monk who spend the entire meal glowering disapprovingly as I slowly turned a delicate hue of puce trying to find a suitable furtive moment to release some vegetarian Buddhist diet-fuelled gas.

And, when I came to stand up, my legs had gone completely gone so I stumbled and fell while trying to clear the plates. The monks were clearly not amused.

Wise words

The intense ritual of breakfast had started to make this whole trip feel like a weekend at Buddhist boot camp.

Iku-san, clearly sensing my frustration (how very Zen of him), took me aside and said calmly:

“Today you did everything wrong but that’s the best day to do it.”

I sat there in the kitchen having a Zen moment and pondering his words. Was this one of those famous riddles that Zen practitioners like to deliberate to help ease themselves under the soapy waters of zazen?

By the second day I started to grow more accustomed to the rituals.

I don’t think I ever really succeeded in clearing my mind of the detritus of daily life but I did stop fighting my cynical urges and just went with the flow of temple life and all its Zen-inspired quirks.

On my last morning, Klaus, a Zen student from Germany who was racking up the sixth month of his current stay, gave me a Zen pep talk.

“There’s a Japanese saying,” he informed me sagely after breakfast.

‘You have to be reborn 8,000 times to achieve enlightenment.’

“People think of meditation as something mystic but, in reality, it’s highly pragmatic. It’s not a religion. It’s simply about seeing your true self. If you practice at home for just 15 minutes a day, you too could learn,” he smiled.

Walking back to the station in the mid-morning sunshine, my mind was cluttered.

I had emails to send, credit card bills to pay and a big mental to-do sticky that said, “Buy extra-large cafe latte and chocolate croissant upon arrival at Kyoto station.”

To be honest, I don’t think I’m cut out for a life as a Zen master. But, as I watched the Japanese salarymen dashing for the subway from a station cafe, I did feel a sense of wellbeing.

Maybe it was the caffeine. Maybe the huge steak I was planning for dinner. Or maybe I’d seen the real me and decided, with minor plastic surgery and a decent personal trainer, I didn’t look too bad after all.

It was my own private nirvana. And it felt pretty good.

What did you think of this story? Post your comments below.

This article was first published in The Guardian in March 2002.

Liked this? Try also A Geisha makeover in Kyoto.

Story of the week: Going for a geisha makeover in Kyoto, Japan


The book Memoirs of a Geisha has a lot to answer for.

Arthur Golden’s best-selling story of a young girl sold to a Kyoto teahouse who goes on to become the country’s leading geisha, has turned the Gion, the traditional geisha quarter of Kyoto, into something of a human zoo.

Today, there are a mere handful of teahouses left in Gion and the number of maiko (trainee geisha) has fallen from thousands to around 150.

Nevertheless, clutching-cameras coach parties now pack into the tiny side streets, brushing past the traditional red lanterns and traipsing along the hidden alleyways to indulge in their new favourite sport: geisha spotting.

Most of the terminally shy maiko find this snapshot Disneyland utterly abhorrent.

Indeed, when they do reluctantly appear at Gion Corner to provide displays of traditional dance and music for tourists, their facial expressions betray a sense of gritted-teeth boredom endured solely to generate income for their sponsoring teahouse.

Makeover service

Nevertheless, the world of geisha continues to fascinate both Japanese and English tourists alike.

Keen to piggyback on the explosion of interest in geisha culture, shops around Gion have even taken to offering geisha makeover services, whereby young Japanese women can live their dream of being a geisha – albeit just for one day.

Yume Miru Yume (‘To Dream A Dream’) is one of 30 such maiko makeover shops.

It offers a full service: make-up, hair styling, a kimono fitting and two portrait photographs as part of a four-hour process from Y10,000/£50.

Once dressed, the faux geisha claims her 15 minutes of fame by running the gauntlet of the camera-clutching tourists on a ten-minute Gion walkabout.

Ironically, Yume Miru Yume also provides make-up services for real maiko.

“Geisha services form the basis of our livelihood. This offers us a new way to expand business when times are hard,” explains shop manager, Emi Sano, who handles about 20 requests per day for a geisha makeover.

“Some clients worry it may harm the reputation of real geisha if these women are seen using their mobile phone or smoking in public ­­as such behaviour would be unacceptable for a real maiko.”

Intense training 

Traditionally, to become a geisha or “arts person” has necessitated years of intense training.

Girls would start dance and music lessons when they were six years, six months and six days old.

Now contemporary maiko embark on five years of study aged 15, including dance, calligraphy, flower arrangement, tea ceremony and playing the shamisen (a traditional three-stringed Japanese instrument like a banjo).

All the time, they are working to repay their sponsoring teahouse and will remain in debt to their mama-san for many years into their professional geisha career.

The exact amount of tuition fees varies between teahouses but, as the teahouse provides her with her living expenses as well training and kimonos (and a single kimono will probably cost about 1m Yen/£5,000) the sum is clearly considerable.

Aged about 20, they have their eri-kae, a coming of age ceremony whereby, having sat their geisha exams, they graduate from maiko to geisha status.

Only then will their hair will be ceremoniously cut and they can finally wear the kimono and geta (clogs) of a fully qualified geisha.

But while the geisha old guard tries desperately to preserve its ancient traditions, the harsh economic reality of Japan’s ten lost years of economic stagnation has given rise to a whole new breed of young upstart geisha with its own cut-price take on the world of flower and willow.

Budget geisha 

Ryoco Okamura is a 22-year-old humanities student at a Kyoto university. By day she likes shopping and hanging out in Starbucks with her friends.

By night, however, she’s a budget geisha.

Born of the post-bubble need for geisha services at budget prices, the rationale behind Hisako’s role is highly pragmatic: with expense accounts being slashed, businesses can no longer afford traditional geisha entertainment.

Genuine geisha charge Y10,000 (£54) for one hour of companionship; Ryoco works in her spare time around college and earns around Y1,000 (£5) per hour.

“Of course I’m a fake geisha,” says Ryoco.

“I only had three months training in dance, make-up, comportment and how to speak with an appropriate Gion accent before I started to perform at parties.”

“I know I don’t belong to the institutionalised geisha system in Kyoto,” she adds casually. “This is just my part-time job.”

But there is no shame in being a dial-a geisha.

As Ryoco sees it, only by changing with the times can the culture of geisha survive: fewer girls than ever are joining the profession and only about 20 per cent of geisha now have a danna, an older patron who sets them up as their mistress with a home and an allowance.

Nevertheless, for today’s generation of young Japanese women with their platform heels, dyed hair and Hello Kitty fixation, becoming a geisha remains one of the few ways in patriarchal Japan for a woman to make decent money.

Hard times 

The explosion of interest in geisha comes at a time when Japanese Prime Minister has announced ambitious plans to repackage Japan as a tourist destination.

In an about-face for a nation that previously made little attempt to attract international visitors, premier Junichiro Koizumi recently declared an initiative to double the number of tourists to 10m people per year by 2010.

While times are hard, even the geisha will have their role to play in this attempt to court the much-needed injection of hard currency that mass tourism will bring.

So, as yet another coach party arrives at Gion, cameras poised to catch the geisha heading for work at dusk, Japan’s oldest profession may well find themselves signing a contract with a devil just to survive.

What did you think of this story? Post your comments below.

This article was first published in the Weekend FT in March 2003.

Liked this? Try also A Food Tour of Vietnam.



* I’ve been trying to write some flash fiction as a potential entry for the Harry Bowling prize. This is an edited version following feedback from my monthly writing group, Seriously Sentences at Gladstone’s Library. Is this good enough to enter?

Her hair was just-showered clean. Her tongue, wet and darting, was eager as an eel. But her perfume, cheap and cloying, betrayed her. I breathed it in impassively as I arrived home and followed its scent trail up the stairs.

She was kissing me now, sucking the life out of me. The ceiling fan whirred, the streetlights flickered and the steam from the rice cooker seeped through the shoji screens like a silent sarin attack. The house slept innocently.

I focused on the detritus of the room to avoid registering the moment before I pulled back. She rose, closed the screens and moved silently across the landing, the padding of tiny feet on the tatami fading against the soundtrack of sirens and stumbling salarymen making for the last train to the suburbs on the street outside.

Afterwards, lying sweat drenched and dislocated on the futon, I traced the pathway to this moment.

On the first day she had walked me around the district, passing rows of grey-facade housing blocks and turning down endless identikit sidetsreets. It took me days to learn how to pick my way through the labyrinth.

But eventually I did. Walk past the convenience store with the coffee machine, loop around the newspaper kiosk, where a shrivelled old man slipped soft-porn manga inside copies of the Japan Times, and cross behind the red lanterns of the local izakaya, where I’d sometimes down beer with hot-sake chasers at night, alone and bewildered.

Once we took a taxi home together at dusk. The driver, all pristine-white gloves and shiny-peaked cap, feigned professional indifference to a middle-aged woman and her young male gaijin companion.

“There’s a storm coming,” he said. We nodded our agreement and stared out as the neon swam upstream through the fledgling puddles forming on the road.

The next week we went to the supermarket, cruising aisles of dried fish and exotic fruit. She led with the list while I followed with the trolley – love’s young dream.

We went for kaiten sushi on the way home and sat, impassively, as the sushi train rolled before us like the opening credits of a mediocre movie. The thin slices of fish glistened and the sting of wasabi flared our nostrils.

She took me for ice cream afterwards and produced an aged Polaroid, snapping me in an anodyne shopping mall with a scoop of chocolate fudge smeared around my mouth like a child’s forced smile. It was a Sunday quiet. Empty.

That night, after her aged parents had retired for the night, we sat and watched a video. A young boy was playing on his bicycle and smiling for the camera. She was there in a summer dress, her husband, grey suited and hair greased, looked on kindly. They looked happy.

After the accident, she explained, they took in the first homestay, a young American lad brushing up on his kanji at a local university. They told the guests to come and go as they please, she said, but never to enter to the room where her father slept.

He kept a nightly vigil over the small shrine to her son, Hiroyuki, placing fresh offerings and reciting Shinto prayers.

One night I brought home a friend from college. With her retro clothes from Amerika-Mura vintage shops and her bottle-blond hair, she was mot just kawaii but a proper maguro – a real fresh tuna in the parlance of the fleshpots of Shinsaibashi.

After the ritual bowing and polite conversation before her departure, the house felt cooler. I didn’t need the fan that night. Maybe the summer humidity was giving way to autumn at last.

A week later I packed my backpack and moved on, settling for a shoebox behind Shin Osaka, where trains rumbled through the night and commuters, six abreast on the zebra crossing, inspected my microwave breakfast as if watching a daytime soap on the giant TV screen above the intersection sponsored by a electronics manufacturer.

I speculated what happened the night I left. Hiroko-san would slide away the private screen in the darkest recess of her room, pinning a Polaroid snap to a board. This would be the latest image of a young man, ice cream-smeared and curious. The names would scrawled in felt pen below each of the gurning mugshots. Forced smiles.

She would then prepare an offering for the shrine to Hiroyuki-chan and lie down on her futon.

We all knew it. There would be more fresh tuna by market day.

* What do you think of this flash-fiction piece? Post your comments below.


Harry Bowling Prize

Seriously Sentences at Gladstone’s Library