Sub-Tropical Summer Vacation: Iriomote Island

“He who returns from a journey is not the same as he who left.”  ~ Chinese Proverb

“No man needs a vacation so much as the man who has just had one.”  ~ Elbert Hubbard

“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent upon arriving.”  ~ Lao Tzu


nakara001iriomote-guide-4It’s that time of year for, yes, you guessed it:  Summer Vacation!  The wife and I are departing tomorrow (Saturday, 24 May 2014) for a 4-day retreat in the southern most reaches of the Ryukyu Islands, of which Okinawa anchors.  We will be staying at a rather remote resort on Iriomote island, and although it is the 2nd largest island in the Ryukyu (after Okinawa) chain, there are only about 2,000 residents…but over 150,000 tourists every year!  Most of the interior of the island remains rugged  and inaccessible jungle, which has become one of Japan’s largest National Parks.    We look forward to some serious unwinding, river kayaking, waterfall trekking, eco-tours, and ox cart taxis to name just a few….  Oh, but mostly just vegging by the pool and on the island’s “Star Sand” beach.


star-sand-beach-okinawa-japan-woe3-690x44710084627204_b211c83338_zUpon our return we will have less than 24 hours to do a quick laundry and repack our bags for our first trip back to the states since being flung over to the Far East.  We will be checking in on family in South Carolina, I’ll be giving my daughter away in her wedding in South Beach (Miami) and visiting with my granddaughter who is now 18 months old, and then we’ll finally head “home” for a few days in Pensacola, Florida, to check on our rental home and catch up with all our close friends.


Between being pretty seriously ill most of this month and these upcoming vacations, May has turned out to be a blog-lite month for the Far East Fling.  No worries though; I plan to return to publishing our Far East Flirtations with great fervor upon our return to our sub-tropical paradise in mid-June.


Stay tuned.  Our Far Eastern Flirtations never end!  Cheers, Kevin and Jody, Okinawa, Japan.


Temple Transcendence: Zen Meditation in Kyoto

“Meditation is the soul’s perspective glass.”  ~ Owen Feltham

“All of man’s difficulties are caused by his inability to sit, quietly, in a room by himself.”  ~ Blaise Pascal


“The idea of ‘empty mind’ is impossible,” our pragmatic Zen Buddhist Meditation Master started.  He continued, “More appropriately, you should strive for a state of ‘NO MIND’.  Accept what is and what cannot be changed; do not attempt to ignore that which cannot be ignored.”  He continued, this time more profoundly, “Concentrate on now, not the future or the past.  TODAY IS THE YOUNGEST YOU’LL EVER BE.  Things done today impact EVERYTHING downstream.  It is not about karma; rather, it is about refraining from placing judgment or valuation of good versus bad.  There are only actions and impacts….”

Not how to meditate.

Not how to meditate.

Thus, our dabble with authentic Zen Meditation (“zazen” 坐禅, literally “seated meditation”), started, and boy was it a pleasant surprise.  Jody and I decided to stay in the Buddhist temple Shunkoin during our recent trip to Kyoto, Japan, which provided a class and orientation on Zen mediation (read about our stay here:  Serene Sanctuary).  I can tell you that this experience…wait for it…enlightened us!

Geeks need love - and meditation - too.

Geeks need love – and meditation – too.

“Who can empty their mind?  It is an impossible task!  Random thoughts, noises in the environment, emotions – all these things are impossible to block,” Rev Takafumi continued.  “Quite the contrary; let these thoughts and sensations flow through your mind which is always full.  But, strive to separate judgment, categorization and valuation to such thoughts and sensations.  Hence, the idea of ‘no mind’,” he continued.


Reverend Takafumi Kawakami leads the meditation services at the temple.  He serves as the Temple’s Vice Abbot, and is a Kyoto native whose family has a long history at Shunkoin.  The wonderful thing about relating with and to Rev Kawakami is that he was educated in the United States, where he worked and obtained dual degrees in religious studies and psychology.  So, not only is his English almost fluent, he is well versed on Western lifestyles, cultural norms, and societal expectations.

Reverend Takafumi Kawakami

Reverend Takafumi Kawakami

“How can you meditate in pain?  That is totally not the point!”  Our meditation master continued, “It’s hard for almost everyone to hold the full lotus position (Kekkafuza), and still hard for most in the half-lotus position (Hankafuza).”  The lotus position, in which you usually find statues of Buddha posed in, is only for the very flexible.  The half-lotus position was recommended by our Master, but then only if there was no pain or discomfort experienced.  He provided mats (zabuton), cushions (zafu), and even chairs for those with bad knees.

The Temple's Meditation Hall

The Temple’s Meditation Hall

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, zen meditation whipped green tea and sweetsThe Temple provides a Zen meditation class and Temple tour daily, which combined, take about 90 minutes.  There is a quick reception where introductions are made, and then everyone proceeds to the meditation room in the back of the temple complex.  Keep in mind that this is an authentic, old and historic temple, and as such it lacks insulation.  The meditation room was heated, but a bit drafty.  The walks through the temple passages to get to the meditation room and during the follow-on tour are not!  Luckily for us, hot maccha (also spelled matcha) green tea and Japanese sweets were served after the tour.

The Master's Station

The Master’s Station

zentaka“The point is to take a comfortable position and remain still.  Whether you need a cushion, or to even sit in a chair is up to you.  One can meditate anywhere in any position.  The positioning of your body is just not that important,” the Reverend surprisingly stated.  “Don’t worry so much about the formalities.  People in the West get so caught up in the orthodoxy of meditation that they forget to meditate.”  While the full lotus position places the meditator in a balanced and symmetrical posture closest to the ground, an important aspect of the Japanese floor-based culture, the half-lotus position provides most of the same results.


We only had 4 in our class....

We only had 4 in our class….

One of the most interesting aspects of our introduction to Zen meditation in such an authentic setting was the discussions about not just the basics of meditation, but of how to incorporate Zen philosophy into your daily life.  “Incense does not cleanse the air!  It’s smoke after all,” the Reverend startlingly exclaimed.  “We use incense to time the segments of meditation….  The most important thing is take a few moments every day to meditate; only then will the benefits be realized over time.”

Meditation mats and cushions.

Meditation mats and cushions.

zenkitties-speedbump-268x300One of the primary tenants of Zen is meditation.  Through remaining motionless and focusing on breathing, one is able to bring oneself into the now moment and detach from previous knowledge and preconception.  The goal is to eventually reach a state of transcendence and to realize the fundamental non-permanence of being.  This means interacting with the world without consciousness of self, categorization, or discrimination.

I meditate on my breathing so well that I don't need a regulator....

I meditate on my breathing so well that I don’t need a regulator….

I was immediately struck by the types of meditation that I do in my own life, although I have never really put them in a Zen Buddhist meditative context.  For example, scuba diving, especially when I have dived solo, approaches such a state of transcendence.  Being in the alien environment underwater, focusing intently on slow controlled breathing with full and deep inhales and exhales, while moving through the water as effortlessly as possible where the sounds of life above on terrestrial earth are absent, allows me to clear my mind of almost all conflict and strife.  Life itself is simply set in a different context underwater where humans really are uninvited.

Hard to focus on thought when riding through such wonderful scenery!

Hard to focus on thought when riding through such wonderful scenery!

Or, when traveling on very long motorcycle trips.  When you ride ~500 miles in a day on a bike, you have more time with your thoughts than you can simply imagine.  No radio, no one to talk to, just the drone of the bike drummed out by earplugs, and the passing miles and the voices in your head.  And after a certain point, I do find that I achieve a state of “no mind” where the voices stop, and this is indeed the very reason why bikers talk about it taking 100 miles for them to “clear their heads.”  It is not comfortable for some people to be so alone with themselves, and cross-country motorcycle trips are not for everyone.  But for those of us that know the magic healing powers of the road and two wheels, it is again due to a related meditative state much like in Zen Buddhism.

It's amazing how relaxed you can get during the climb to altitude.

It’s amazing how relaxed you can get during the climb to altitude.

And perhaps the best example I have is in skydiving, which on the surface is completely counter-intuitive.  For such an action-packed, adrenaline-pumping sport where one literally cheats death every time, you would think there is NO time for meditation.  However, we – my fellow skydivers and I – often find ourselves keeping silently to ourselves on the twenty-minute ride up to altitude.  It’s hard to talk in the plane due to helmets and ambient noise, so most often we sit comfortably with our eyes closed, letting the white noise of the cool rushing wind and drone of the turboprop engine  flow through our minds.  Personally, I find those moments some of the most serene and peaceful, perhaps exactly because of the chaos that ensues shortly afterwards.

meditation quote

What the Rev Takafumi Kawakami confirmed for me is the central importance of meditation itself, not the formality or framework in which meditation takes place.  Wherever and however you find your way to meditate is not essential; what is important is to just do it, and do it as often as possible.  Small actions today can have dramatic impacts tomorrow.  Meditation is one effective way to exploit acts today so that a better tomorrow can be realized.


How do YOU meditate in your daily life?

Love Rocks!! Match-Making, Love & Romance in Kyoto, Japan

“Where there is love there is life.”  ~ Mahatma Gandhi


If you’ve been looking for love in all the wrong places, perhaps it’s time you visited the Jishu Shrine of love and match-making in Kyoto, Japan.  Kyoto is known as the most visited place in Japan.  I’ve even heard an urban legend that it’s the most visited place on the planet…outside of Mecca.  While I doubt the latter claim, the former certainly holds true.  As Japanese’s ancient capital and cultural and religious center spared the destructive bombings of WWII (see my blog about how the city was saved here), its extensive collection of historically important castles, temples and shrines all provide a draw for tourist and pilgrims alike.

The Complex's Deva Gate

The Complex’s Deva Gate

Kyoto Winter 2014, Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺), Jishu Shrine of Ōkuninushi god of love and match-makingJishu is found within the Kiyomizu-dera temple complex, already the city’s leading tourist spot that draws massive throngs.  However, finding ourselves already in Kyoto during low winter season, we decided to further reduce the risk of swarming sightseers by visiting during a random weekday…at sunrise!  Actually, since it was on a hillside, I thought what a better place to view the dawn of a new day; unfortunately, I didn’t take into account that the Kiyomizu-dera provides only a westerly view….  Between the cold of winter and early time of day, we were assured a nearly private visit!

Kiyomizu-dera's Main Hall and Veranda

Kiyomizu-dera’s Main Hall and Veranda

Kyoto Winter 2014, Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺), painted dragon adorns a temple's ceilingKiyomizu-dera (清水寺, “clean” or “pure waters”), a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a complex of Buddhist temples and shrines in the hillsides of eastern Kyoto.  Kiyomizu-dera was founded in 798, but the present buildings date to 1633.  The massive wooden main hall features a large veranda supported by a tall and dense latticework of pillars that juts out dramatically over the hillside and offers impressive views of the city.  Most amazingly, there is not a single nail used in the entire structure.


Kyoto Winter 2014, Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺), Jishu Shrine of Ōkuninushi god of love, shrine's cleansing watersThe Jishu Shrine is dedicated to Ōkuninushi, a god of love and “good matches.”  Jishu Shrine gets high marks for its foreigner user-friendliness.  English-language explanations of most everything are extensively provided, and proclamations of inclusivity abound:  “There is only one human race even though there are many nationalities.”  And perhaps most importantly, the shrine’s Ema good-luck charms are clearly explained in English, a relatively uncommon find visiting Japan’s religious sites.


While Jishu is small and an easily missed off-shoot from the main pathway through Kiyomizu-dera, it’s packed with interesting wives’ tales and superstitions about love, marriage, curses, and match-making (enmusubi).  Some of the highlights for Jody and I are described below.

Jody's Love on the Rocks

Jody’s Love on the Rocks

Kyoto Winter 2014, Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺), Jishu Shrine of Ōkuninushi god of love, Jody blindly walks from love rock to love rock 2img_0292Love Rocks!  Love may be blind, but if you believe hard enough, you can still stumble upon it….  The primary love lure of the shrine are two rocks.  Yep, rocks.  Love rocks.  They stand about 6 meters (20 feet) apart, and according to legend, if one walks between the two stones with their eyes closed (no cheating!), then they are assured luck in love.  However, should someone help along the way, one will only find love through the interloping of another.  The challenge is a popular one, with the love-sick attempting to thread their way through the throngs with eyes shut and arms outstretched.  While I needed a bit of guidance, Jody made the walk rather easily.  Good thing she’s already mine!

An anime adaptation of Cupid....

An anime adaptation of Cupid….

Japan’s Cupid.  Ōkuninushi, a Japanese “god of love.”  The Jishu is one of the most famed and popular match-making shrines in Japan, and is dedicated to this god.  Anyone looking for romance or marriage probably has plans to visit here, and not surprisingly, the shrine is most often full of young giggling Japanese girls.  Ōkuninushi is associated with love, romance and match-making.  As the spiritual hose of the annual meeting of all of Japan’s kami (Shinto spirits) in November of every year, Ōkuninushi brings the kami together, fostering relationships in the spiritual world.  Therefore, by extension, he became the kami of connections in all worldly matters of love as well.  However, instead of a bow and arrow, Ōkuninushi uses a…rabbit?

Japan's Cupid and his Hare

Japan’s Cupid and his Hare


Yes, the anime version of the "Hare of Inaba"

Yes, the anime version of the “Hare of Inaba”

What’s up Doc?  Well, lovers bred like rabbits, so doesn’t it make sense for Ōkuninushi to have a hare (rabbit) as a sidekick?  Not quite.  The legend of the Hare of Inaba has Ōkuninushi taking pity helping cure the hare who had been skinned alive as a punishment for deception.  However, in a mythical twist of fortune, it turned out the hare was in reality a fellow god, and in return for Ōkuninushi’s help in restoring its skin, the hare became Ōkuninushi’s devoted ally and advised him how to obtain the love of a princess he was seeking to marry.  Since then, the pair has been inseparable.  Already have love; what about good fortunes?

Inaba's Fur Restored

Inaba’s Fur Restored

Fortune Favors…those with 5 Yen to spend.  Omikuji, literally “sacred lot,” are nothing more than random fortunes written on small slips of paper.  Divination has always been a central aspect of ancient Shinto practice, one that continues to this day in the popular form of these fortune slips.  At the Jishu Shrine, however, the fortunes mostly focus on love and romance.  Those receiving good fates might fold and keep the Omikuji to make sure they come true.  Those not so lucky in love will tie them up on a pine tree using strings provided, based on a pun of the word for pine tree (松 matsu) and the verb “’to wait” (待つ matsu), the idea being that the bad luck will wait by the tree rather than attach itself to the bearer.  What a sap (get it, pun intended)!!  Okay, so now you have love and good fortune.  But what about the benjamins??

Magic Money

Magic Money

Money Can’t Buy You Love.  Carrying a treasure sack on his back, holding a “magic money mallet,” and standing or seated on bales of rice, a rather healthy and jolly Daikoku, one of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune associated with Buddhism, can be found throughout the Jishu shrine.  Originating in India as the Hindu deity Shiva, he became intertwined with the Shinto god Ōkuninushi as the characters for “Okuni” can also be read as Daikoku.  Thus, as one deity traversed three countries and three religions, it became conflated in cultural and practice with another, cementing the Shinto-Buddhist syncretism.  What’s more convenient in a shrine than to have access to wishes for love and wealth!!  Well, one also needs a way to wash away their sins.

Hitogata, 人形, vaudou japonais

Healing Waters.  Found within the shrine are a couple of tables with hitogata paper dolls destined to wash away your problems.  The simple design, resembling a human figure, represents you the worshiper after you write your name and age over it.  Once offered to the shrine’s waters in a divine purification service, it is said that your ills and evils shall be washed away.  Sure beats confession.

Kyoto Winter 2014, Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺), Jishu Shrine of Ōkuninushi god of love, love Ema muah XXOOXX

chichibu_shrine_anime_ema_4732Kyoto Winter 2014, Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺), Jishu Shrine of Ōkuninushi god of love, love knots and ties that bindLike a Prayer.  Less Madonna’s annoying tune.  Ema (Shinto prayer plaques) sell at a brisk pace, and can be found just about anywhere around the shrine.  Some portray Ōkuninushi’s and his hare on one side, while others depict classic icons of love.  On the blank back-side, however, is where heartfelt requests for a love-match or marriage are written.  One of the most entertaining aspects of visiting the shrine is examining just how creative some of the pleas of the love-sick actually are.  Now, if only we could read Japanese….



Cursed Sacred Cedar Trunk

Cursed Sacred Cedar Trunk

Kyoto Winter 2014, Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺), Jishu Shrine of Ōkuninushi god of love, Okage-Myojin sacred cedar tree trunkVoodoo, Japanese style.  Finally, all is fair in love as the saying goes.  There is always a darker side, and that is no less true than here at Jishu.  Okage Myojin, a kami-guardian of women, is thought to answer a woman’s any prayer.  Such kami were called upon for “ushi no toki mairi,” a prescribed method of laying a curse traditional to Japan, so-called because it is conducted during the hours of the Ox, with the proper witching hour of 2:00AM.  Typically a scorned woman, dressed in white and crowned with an iron ring set with three lit candles, drives a nail through a straw effigy of the victim, impaling it into a sacred tree.  The ritual must be repeated seven days running, after which the curse is believed to succeed, but being witnessed in the act is thought to nullify the spell…and probably cause quite a bit of embarrassment!  The sacred tree at Jishu is a cedar, and although dead (ironically probably killed by metal poisoning), the trunk remains standing where marks of many nails can still be found.  It’s very interesting to note the similarities to placing a voodoo curse in the West.


Jishu Shrine is a very small area and can be easily missed while traversing the massively broader Temple complex as it is buried deep within.  But don’t let its size – or the crowds fool you – it’s most certainly worth the visit!  Whether you’re taken already or not, everyone could use a little more Luck in Love.  Have a visit, and enrich your life!

Kyoto Winter 2014, Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺), Jishu Shrine of Ōkuninushi god of love, collage

Tainted by Tats? The Stigma of Ink in Japan

“Show me a man with a tattoo and I’ll show you a man with an interesting past.”  ~ Jack London

I can hear you pleading, “But Asia’s all about ink, right?”  Afraid not, my friend.


187682628_75c07e600d_oInk’d up?  Sure, it’s becoming more and more of the norm these days in the States, in Europe, and it seems in most places West.  However, things seem to be quite different here in Japan.  In a somewhat surprising Far Eastern twist, the Japanese have had and still do associate an off-putting stigma with tattoos.  Despite the popularity of Japanese art and imagery among tattoo artists and enthusiasts in the West, even the most beautiful piece of body work done by the most talented artist can result in disapproving looks and negative comments om the East.  There are prominent, clearly labeled signs at mainstream Japanese establishments like fitness gyms, public swimming pools, and especially at Japan’s renown hot springs that state anyone with even the most handsome butterfly ankle irezumi (Japanese for tattoo, literally, “insert ink”) are banned from entry.


But why all this negativity?


AntonKustersYakuza1The easiest explanation, of course, is that Japanese gangsters (the yakuza) traditionally mark their bodies with tattoos, but this is simply a copout.  The yakuza are not just inked like many of us Americans are used to from our own limited exposure to Western-style gangbangers; they are more than likely literally covered in ink…and easily distinguishable from say a more law-abiding ink aficionado.  And, by the way (and unsurprisingly so), the vast majority of people in Japan who may have a tattoo are simply not associated with organized crime.  Regular folks have them here too.  More and more in fact, taking their leads from Asian celebs and artists that are often at the forefront of cultural change.  That’s no surprise – and oh, by the way, they get a “pass” on the bans, like how celebs are treated in most other societies around the world.  And as far as I can tell, people here are motivated like any other person who contemplates and ultimately the permanency of skin art:  fashion, fad, or a more personal interest in body art and its symbolism….

Japanese Gangbangers sport not your normal tattoos

Japanese Gangbangers sport not your normal tattoos


Yeah, avoid this guy....

Yeah, avoid this guy….

Now I’m a pragmatic at the same time.  While I may have, in my youth, judged those with ink sleeves, I see things more clearly and with fewer connotations today.  However, at the same time, I realize that if you want a professional, executive job in traditionally conservative or say “professional” corporations, or want to front the public in high-profile way and positions, than those facial tats and multiple lip and nose piercings are probably just not a good idea, regardless of how you personally feel about your American god-given right to freedom of expression.  Yes, the strategic placement of my ink was critical, for various reasons, then and now, to be relatively easily hidden from public consumption.  I like to preserve many options.  The story of my own skin art can be found here in “Tattoo You,” Part 1 and Part 2.  In short, I’m happy that – thanks to ink, it’s still relatively easy to tell which people should be avoided at all costs….

Which would you take more seriously?

Which would you take more seriously?

It turns out that this disgrace associated with body art in Japan isn’t a recent phenomenon.  Japan has had a long tattoo history.  There’s some evidence, based on historical Chinese records noting tattooed Japanese men, that tattoos were culturally important during the country’s quite early and ancient Jōmon Period (12,000 to 300 BCE.).  Further, the history of Japan and body art is that of a love-hate relationship.  For example, in the 17th century, Japanese criminals were tattooed to shamefully and blatantly mark them instead of punishment through mutilation – like hacking off a hand, ear, or nose, practiced in much of the rest of Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East at the time.

Really, a hunchback and with a pirate scar on his check?

Really, a hunchback and with a pirate scar on his check?

After becoming somewhat fashionable in the 18th century during the Edo Period, tattoos were banned in Japan in the mid-to-late 19th century (Meiji period) as the country opened up to the outside world.  The fear was that any ink-based Far Eastern flirtation might seem primitive to foreigners or be mocked abroad by internally perceived “more-advanced” outsiders.  The Japanese government saw tattoos as “barbaric” and certainly not part of their program to modernize.  It wasn’t until after World War II that the legal prohibition against tattooing in Japan was lifted, and then only by the Allied occupation forces…and hence the long associative lineage of Mom, tats, and dirty nasty sailors.  But, given the almost 100 years of previous prohibition, the stigma against tattoos was firmly rooted in Japanese culture and custom.

Navy Old Skool Tats

Japanese wearers of traditional tattoos frequently keep their art secret, as tattoos are still seen as a sign of criminality in Japan, particularly by older people and in the work place.  Ironically, many yakuza and other criminals themselves now avoid tattoos for this very reason.

Everyone knows criminals now tattoo themselves to support prison breaks!

Everyone knows criminals now tattoo themselves to support prison breaks!

To highlight how bad ink-based humiliation in Japan can be, in 2012, Toru Hashimoto, the mayor of Osaka (one of Japan’s largest and most modern urban centers), made his views about people with tattoos quite clear:  they had to go.

C'mon, even Marge has a tramp stamp.

C’mon, even Marge has a tramp stamp.

Hashimoto launched a controversial campaign against employees of the city who had tattoos, requiring them to fill out paperwork and document exactly what the tattoo was, and where on their body it was located.  Not only did this stir up concerns about privacy, it also resulted in some strong criticism from western countries where tattoos have become more and more acceptable.  The goal of the mayor’s campaign was to ensure the trust of the local people in their government.  The thought went something like this:  if citizens were interacting with city employees who had visible tattoos, it would reflect badly on the city and its leaders.

Covered tats really aren't there....

Covered tats really aren’t there….

It didn’t matter if the artful employee worked in a top office position, or if they were a simple garbage collector; the public should not see any city employee with ink on their skin.  In a move that cries prejudice and is clearly against our own equal opportunity and protection laws, the Mayor’s idea was to consider that all those who admitted to having tattoos, whether they were easily covered during working hours or not, would be transferred to positions out of the public eye, or worse, even terminated.  Further, those who refused to take the survey were told that their pay would be cut and some were also threatened with possible termination.  Hashimoto publicly stated that if people had or wanted to get tattoos, they should find other lines of work.  What an asshole; I wonder what skeletons that paranoid prick has hiding in his closet!

The Mayor should be much more worried about his own words than hidden ink....

The Mayor should be much more worried about his own words than hidden ink….

114c7baf78ecae8ad8209eeb684e4750Does ink say something about a person?  Yes, sure it does.  If a tattoo is visible, it’s by design there to be seen and contemplated.  And therein resides the central issue.  Beauty, after all, is only skin deep…and rests squarely with the eye of the beholder.  But be careful:  labeling yourself but wanting not to be labeled are more often than not at contradictory odds.

Of course there are those that welcome stigma!

Of course there are those that welcome stigma!

Serene Sanctuary: Zen Buddhist Temple Lodgings

“It is better to travel well than to arrive.” ~ Buddha


Zen Meditation Room

Zen Meditation Room

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, zen meditation whipped green tea and sweetsIf you’re looking for an exceptionally relaxing and uniquely Japanese treat, it doesn’t get much more Zen than this delightfully tranquil shukubo (“temple lodging”) at Shunkō-in Temple, located within the Myōshin-ji temple complex in northwest Kyoto. The temple’s relatively new dormitory offers exaggeratedly (and purposely) simplistic rooms, but which also offer modern comforts, including free Wi-Fi and a shared, well-equipped kitchen and spacious dining area. The real draw here, however, is the calm and quiet of the grounds and surrounding areas, combined with the chance to take part in Buddhist temple-based Zen meditation along with a nearly private temple tour, both of the latter under the guidance of Shunkō-in’s English-speaking vice abbot, the Rev. Kawakami.

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Buddhist temple wooden roofline

Shunkō-in not only offers visitors an opportunity to learn about Zen Buddhism, but also a chance to see treasured religious articles up close and personal, representative of important epochs in Japanese history. We also used our stay here to reset ourselves into the northwest of the city from the Gion area, and from here we were easily able to enjoy nearby UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the Golden Pavilion, Ryoanji Temple, and Ninnaji Temple!

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, sacred decorative stone

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, stone tiles and design 2Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, sacred everygreen pine at night 2We stayed at Shunkō-in Temple during the low winter season in late January and early February of 2014. While the larger Myōshin-ji temple complex is only about 8 minutes from the local Hanazono train station (easily reached from Kyoto station), it is at least that much more time to get to Shunkō-in from Myōshin-ji’s southern entrance, and that’s only if you know where you are going! We elected to arrive via taxi as it was raining the morning of our arrival, although it appears taxis cannot enter the Myōshin-ji compound, so we still did manage to end up damp wandering our way along. I’m not admitting we didn’t know where we were going, but remember: not everyone who wanders is lost!

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, closed wooden gate lighted at night

Shunkō-in (春光院, “Temple of the Ray of Spring Light”) is a Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto belonging to the “Temple of Excellent Mind,” the largest among the various Japanese Buddhist traditions. The temple was established in 1590 and houses important historical objects that reflect the multifaceted religious and artistic atmosphere in Japan from the sixteenth century onward.


The Bell of Nanban-ji

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, 16th century church bell IHS

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, 16th century church bell (holga)The Bell of Nanban-ji is a Jesuit bell made in Portugal in 1577 and used in Nanban-ji, the first Christian Church in Kyoto established in 1576. For the next eleven years, Nanban-ji was the center of Catholic missionary activities in Japan, and also served as an important gathering place for traders from Portugal and Spain.

The church was purposely destroyed by fire in 1587 after Christian persecution was sanctioned in Japan, and was never rebuilt. The Bell made its way to Shunkō-in around 1800, but during World War II, the grandfather of the present vice-abbot buried the bell in the temple gardens to prevent it from being melted down in support of the Japanese imperial war effort. The bell helps illuminate the deep history of Christianity in Japan during the 16th century and about the political and economic relationships between Japan and Europe. The bell is designated as a “National Important Cultural Property.”

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, 16th century Christian church bell (impact)The Jesuit seal containing a Christogram “IHS” can be found on the surface of the bell. “IHS” is derived from the first three letters of the Greek name of Jesus, ΙΗΣ (Jesus is ΙΗΣΟΎΣ in Greek), and is also connected with the Latin phrase, “Iesus Hominum Salvator,” or “Jesus, Savior of Man.” Under this three nails on the Seal of the Society of Jesus can be found, symbolizing the Crucifixion of Christ.

The Myōshin-ji complex is made up of multiple towering temples scattered throughout its vicinities, and is the biggest temple complex in Kyoto. Thus, the entire area allows one to enjoy peace and silence even being surrounded by the city’s dense urban sprawl. Walking the grounds, you will see students, locals, and Buddhist monks roving about or passing through. What you won’t see, however (and thankfully so) are foreign tourists! The Shunkō-in Temple itself is picture perfect. Passing through its handsome wooden gates, one quickly feels anointed with the tranquility and peace the surroundings seem to almost impose.


Kirishitan Lantern (Hidden Christian Lantern)

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, hidden Christian symbols (temple lantern)kirishitanShunkō-in houses an Asian stone lantern called a kirishitan dōrō (“Christian lantern”), whose leg is in the vague shape of a cross, and carved into its surface one finds what could be interrupted as an effigy of the Virgin Mary. While the distinctive history of this particular lantern has been lost to antiquity, this lantern remains a very important object which speaks much about early Christianity in Japan

Christianity was introduced to Japan by St. Francis Xavier on August 15, 1549, and initially was accepted by many feudal lords and farmers in western Japan. However, Christianity came to be viewed as a serious threat to Japan, leading to its outright ban in 1614.

The Edo period (1603-1867) within Japan was the dark ages for Japanese Christians. Christianity was banned, and Christians and their icons and property were systematically eliminated and destroyed. However, as is always the case in at any time for all religions, some Christians decided to keep their faith and actively starting to hide their religious identity. Those hidden Christians made their crosses and graves to resemble the Buddhist statues, pagodas, and stone lanterns, like that found at Shunkō-in. In 1858, the ban against Christianity was finally lifted by the newly-born Meiji government of more modern times.

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, idle Japanese straw brooms

Although check-in times at Shunkō-in are stressed, you can arrange to drop luggage off early. On our arrival to do just that, we were told our room was already ready and available. There are some basic forms to fill out, and you’ll need to provide your passport for a short time, and the room must be pre-paid. The English-speaking staff there provides a wide variety of information, and has the gouge on local places to eat, tourist sites and other area-related information.

Free loaner bikes are a WONDERFUL way to get around

Free loaner bikes are a WONDERFUL way to get around


Painted Sliding Door Panels (fusuma-e) by Eigaku Kanō


Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, classic Japanese wall paintingsKyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, classic Japanese wall paintings 4Several sliding door panels at Shunkō-in were painted by Eigaku Kanō, and have Confucian teachings as their theme. Confucianism and its stress on honor, loyalty and honesty were very important to samurai (warriors) during Japan’s Edo period. The wonderful thing about viewing these panels here at the temple during a private tour is that not only are they original (most other painted sliding door panels are reproductions in other major temple attractions), but they can be viewed up close and personal, from a seated position on the tatami mats, with only natural light, all exactly the way the panels were designed and painted for viewing! Similarly, the gardens are viewed the same way – as originally intended from seated positions in the center of the main rooms adjoining the green spaces.

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, Jody in a Temple room

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, Buddhist cemetery at the temple (holga)Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, Buddhist cemetery at nightShunkō-in Temple’s guest house is named Tetsuryu-Kutsu, or, “Cave of Enlightened Dragon.” Fortunately, although we failed to encounter any Far Eastern dragons of ancient lore, we did however feel a bit more enlightened after our stay and meditation experience. There is only one type of room offered at the Temple (although there are 8 total), and that type is SIMPLE! The rooms are located on two floors, all on the same side of a long corridor, with windows that overlook an old Buddhist cemetery…which some people may find a bit creepy. I, however, took advantage of the surreal scenery of this garden of wood and stone in the darkness and rain for some very nice photos.

Simple Sleeping Arrangements

Simple Sleeping Arrangements

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, tranquil wooden raised passagesKyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, Temple Priestly Priest accoutrementsThe air-conditioned/heated en suite room is a 14.6-square-meter bedroom, completely covered with traditional tatami, with sleeping futons on the floor already made (the room could easily sleep three adults). The shower was clean and well-appointed, with the toilet, like most places in Japan, being in a completely separate room.


Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, twin beds Japanese styleKyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, alter statue and offeringsAnother novelty unique to Shunkō-in is the room pillows. Small and dense, they were filled with what we found out to be small sections of hearty plastic straws or tubes. In effect, these small pillows molded almost perfectly to our necks and heads, and were oddly very comfortable. Although I’m sure the sparse room fittings and floor-centric basic bedding was in part to add to the unique humbling experience of Zen Buddhism, Jody and I both agree that sleep here was some of the deepest, restful sleep either of us have experienced in a long, long time! Hard to image that such bliss came from sleeping on the floor in the middle of winter.

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, zen meditation zen master station

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, bicycle riding with Jody to get Chinese food in Kyoto

Wonderful Wonder Cafe

Wonderful Wonder Cafe

Food is not served at the temple, but there are several cafes and eateries nearby that are easily found based on a map provided with your stay. A not to miss treat is the Wonder Café, just a 10 minute walk or so from Shunkō-in. Here you will be wonderfully entertained with the dense and eclectic surroundings, generous portions of pasta dishes, and a simply one-of-a-kind bathroom that’s not to be missed (along with the rest of the entire 2nd floor!). A fun late-trip for a truly unique Chinese-food snack-attack is via the loaner bicycles found at the temple, and the associated downhill race towards the train station and “OHSHO,” serving fabulous food 24/7 and always packed with satisfied customers.

Make sure to get the map!

Make sure to get the map!

Do yourself a favor and stay local and authentic. Between our Machiya stay earlier in the week (see that blog here) and this reinvigorating – if not enlightening experience, we were able to get a much more grounded experience of what Kyoto has to offer at its best: charm, nostalgia, history, all bonded by the more comfortable elements of modernity.



Shunkō-in Temple is Trip-Advisor ranked #11 of 227 Specialty lodgings in Kyoto. Specifics about staying at Shunkō-in can be found here and below:

• Room Rates: 1 person @ 6,000 yen/night; 2 people @ 5,500 yen/person/night; 3 people @ 4,500 yen/person/night. Prices include sales tax (which may have recently gone up – check for current prices!!)

• Check-in 15:30 – 18:30 FIRM, and Check-out 11:00

• No curfew: after check-in guests have 24/7 access to the temple and lodge

• Zen meditation class and tour for staying guests: 500 yen/person

• Free bicycle rental

Address: 42 Myoshinji-Cho, Hanazono, Ukyo-Ku, Kyoto 616-8035 JAPAN

Phone: +81.75.462.5488 (international), (075)462-5488 (domestic)