07 May 2011

Shoganji Temple: Saganoseki, Kyuushuu

Golden Week is over and I just returned from a week-long trip in Kyuushuu. I thought for something different, this time I would try staying at a zen temple (something I've always been interested in doing) and that  it might be a good way to revive a rusty zazen practice, as well as just relax in country life, surrounded by nature.

I found Shoganji temple (in pics above) on the web while searching for zen retreats. The temple is located in a small village (Ojuki) which is part of a fishing peninsula called Saganoseki, not far near Oita. It offered accommodations to foreigners or nationals, regardless of zen experience (although some experience is recommended).  They've hosted visitors from the US, Germany, Canada, Croatia, and many other places. Prices were reasonable and it was rather last-minute so I figured "why not?".

The man sitting next to me is Jiho Kongo, the head monk in charge of the  temple. Shoganji is over 600 years old and has been in his family for over 100 years. He speaks great English and is very friendly, as well as a wonderful cook! Here we are getting ready for lunch.

Above are some more shots around the temple. It's totally surrounded by trees and mountains and can hear frogs and birds singing all the time. The rightmost pic is of a well where that we got drinking water from for daily use. It was really good!

Daily schedule was: up at 5:30 and zen practice until around 7, gardening/chores from 8-10, Lunch at 12 and afternoons were basically free until dinner at 5:30. Lights out around 9 or 10. We did take some trips to local sento (baths) a few times, as well as some other walks/excursions.

One of my most memorable experiences was that I got a chance to help make mochi! I've seen this done a few times, but this was first time participating. I love eating mochi (too much) so was really looking forward to it. Some friends and family of Jiho-san came over for the mochi making. Above is a shot of 2 of us going at it, pounding the rice and yomogi mixed together.

The pic farthest left is yomogi (mugwort) and we picked it fresh around the temple grounds. Mixing it in when pounding the sweet white rice makes it turn green and adds flavor. After the rice mixture turns completely green as gets really sticky, its then stuffed with anko (sweet red bean) and covered with kinako (soybean powder), as is seen in the pics on the right. Man... heaven on earth for me, if you knew how much I loved this stuff! I restrained myself to 2 (sometimes 3) daily : P

If you like simple, fresh regional Japanese dishes, you won't be disappointed. Fresh fish, vegetables, fruit and rice make up most of the dishes. Kyuushu is especially known for citrus fruits and amazing fish. From right to left: Sashimi with negi, takenoko (bamboo shoots), udo (bitter mountain vegetable), sazae (a shellfish kind of like conch), and takenoko, fuki and aburage. We picked the takenoko right outside the temple on a mountain path and had it as side dish throughout the stay. 

There were many other dishes during my stay including grilled fish and squid, oshinko, nanbanzuke, salads, fruit, rice and of course, mochi for dessert. Jiho-san believes in simple style (ie not too much flavoring or sauces to let the freshness of food be tasted). Its true, with food this fresh, you really don't need it.  

I did try no breakfast for the whole time, which is part of the health system observed there. I must say I was skeptical at first (as most people are according to Jiho-san), but after few days not only did i survive without it, I found that i had more energy and didn't even miss it. Drinking lots of water is important in lieu of breakfast though.

In addition to the local foods, there is of course the sea, which is so accessible. I think i walked down to the beach (which is only 10 min walk from temple) around 3 or 4 times a day. Water is clear and can see some reefs/coral too. One thing I noted during these walks was that every person i passed, child or adult, greeted me. I found it amazing since I almost never experience it in Tokyo. I guess that is a normal part of village life. Local people were very friendly.

Unknown to me, I came during a matsuri time and so the town was in festival mode on the 3rd and 4th. I get the feeling in such a remote village, they don't get too many foreigners here, which I think was confirmed upon entering the festival area. The kids, having no fear of course, ran right up to me and started asking me lots of questions, very curious and jumping all over me which lasted pretty much all day..lol. We had a lot of fun. The adults eventually loosened up when they heard I could speak Japanese and offered me some beer and snacks for which I was grateful. The kids were a riot though, so genki!!

Friendly people, beautiful scenery, great food...couldn't ask for much more. Hope to go back for a visit again! Many thanks to Jiho-san, Okaasan and Obasan for their warm hospitality. ありがとうございます!