Zen is an important concept in Japanese philosophy. It promotes introspection and enlightenment by means of concentrated meditation, giving insight into one’s true nature and the essential emptiness of existence, which, in turn, should open the path to liberated living. If this all sounds like pretty heady stuff, then you can look at it from a far less intense perspective; being Zen in our modern times (and indeed the Western world) can simply mean being calm, controlled and living in the moment. Through engaging with simple and short practices, anyone can learn to bring a little more Zen into their life. There’s no need to go the full distance and ‘find yourself’ through Zen meditation (though if you do happen to learn a couple of things along the way, no harm was done!), but it can be a great tool to ground yourself amid the chaos and 24/7 connectivity of contemporary living.
And if you’re looking for a crash course in Zen Buddhism, what better place to go than Japan, a spiritual island (or collection of islands more precisely) with a rich history and tradition of the art. There are Zen retreats to be discovered all over Japan, though most of them are to be found away from the main metropolis of Tokyo, with all its trappings of consumerism and modernism. Most of them offer genuine Buddhist experiences, and while some can be quite expensive, the feeling of learning about the roots of Zen Buddhism in the country that perfected it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Log on to BUCKiTDREAM and check out if any other travelers have gone East to calm their inner selves, and make sure to jot down the following Zen retreats in your ever-useful, ever-practical BUCKiTDREAM planner!
Shōganji Zen Retreat Headed by authentic Rinzai monk Jiho Kongo, Shōganji Zen Retreat opened its doors to the public in 2004 to allow foreigners to experience authentic temple life in the Japanese sticks. Shōganji is situated on Kyushu, Japan’s most southerly island; it’s about an eight-hour bullet train from Tokyo, but there are closer airports you can fly into! It’s located in a tiny fishing village called Ojuki, east of the city of Oita, in Oita prefecture.
This is a very remote area of the country, and part of the charm of Shōganji and places like it is the experience of authentic, rural Japan, which remains largely untouched by the Western influences that have soaked through Tokyo’s neon membrane. A minimum of five days’ stay is required at Shōganji, with the daily schedule incorporating an early 5:30 a.m. wake up call, morning zazen (sitting) meditation, yoga, samu (temple service), outings of your choice, dinner and quiet time.
Jiho is an engaged host who wants you to get the most out of your time at the retreat, and will often take visitors on car trips and afternoon excursions. The cost for the retreat clocks in at around $70 per person per night, but the place has everything you need for your stay so you can look at the (pretty reasonable) price tag as an all-inclusive holiday cost.
Kunisaki Retreat For those who want a more active holiday with the same amount of Zen-like focus, Kunisaki is here to help. Recommended for retreat-seekers who have no problem walking up to 5km a day, Kunisaki retreat is a fully guided, seven-day, six-night tour. It begins at Hakata Station in Fukuoka, also located on Kyushu, and culminates on the beautiful Kunisaki peninsula.
Your accommodation along the way is Japanese traditional style inns, also known as ryokans, and the maximum number per tour is twelve. So you’re assured of an intimate, personalized experience you can make the most of. The beautiful surrounds of Kyushu will be your backdrop for the trip, surrounded by sleepy villages, covered in lush forestry and rice fields, interspersed with rolling mountains and deep valleys.
With an influence on traditional Japanese cuisine and local produce, dining during the retreat is a memorable experience in itself. Depending on the season, participants in the retreat will help out with the farming and harvesting of the local goods, which include delicacies like shiitake mushrooms and yuzu citrus fruits. During your seven-day journey, the itinerary is packed with all sorts of Zen-based activities, such as the old favorites, yoga, and meditation, as well as some unique twists, such as onsen bathing and awe-inspiring hikes up some of Japan’s ancient countryside.
The cost for this action-packed retreat is quite hefty, coming in at around $3,000 per person, but again, everything is included; all you’ll have to cover is the flights!
Mount Koya The majestic Mt. Koya, located just south of the country’s third most populous city, Osaka, is home to over one hundred Shingon Buddhist retreats, some fifty of which offer cheap accommodations to travelers and pilgrims.
These are a simple, no frills option to the more lavish retreats, yet still, retain the same basic core tenets of Buddhism and Zen. Guests will be provided with simple meals (usually vegetarian) and basic sleeping arrangements (futon, single pillow, and tatami mat), and also be expected to help out with very basic temple maintenance and morning prayers.
There’s a lot to see on Mt. Koya, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2004; Kongobuji Temple, with its stunningly serene rock garden, is worth the trek, but it’s the beautiful pathway through a dense cedar forest, lined with over 200,000 graves and monuments of followers who wanted to be near the great priest, whose mausoleum lies at the end of the path, that’s the real jewel in the crown.
Unlike the previous two retreats, the temples on Mt. Koya will pretty much leave you to your own devices, so if you like to be the total master of your own time, this could be the place to head.
Shunkoin Temple Kyoto is the old imperial capital of Japan. It features a gridded layout where every street is lined with numerous shrines and temples and is surrounded by several UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Established in 1590 by Yoshiharu Horio to honor his son who died in the Battle of Odawara, Shunkoin is a serene and ancient site which provides a fitting location for total Zen immersion. Historically significant in the early 20th century as a hub of Zen Buddhism study and progression, today the temple is open to guests and pilgrims alike.
It’s located near the famous Golden Pavilion, as a sub-division of the Myoshinji temple complex so you can be assured of peace and tranquility, even though you’re smack bang in the center of Kyoto city. This temple has the added benefit of being within walking distance of the city’s many other stunning sites, such as Fushimi Inari shrine and the Kiyomizu complex, so if you want to combine your meditation practice with some more conventional tourist activities, Shunkoin could be the temple for you.
You’ll probably want to detach yourself from the trappings of social media while you’re on a Zen retreat, but if you do take the odd snap, be sure to enlighten other travelers by sharing them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram when you’re back home!