Soothe the Chaos with a Mountain Meditation Retreat in Japan

Nestled in the misty green mountains of Nagano – an area I had previously only seen covered in snow as it is famous for its skiing – is a modern-looking temple complex that comes into contact with ancient Zen teachings Buddhists.

Horakuan Temple, a Rinzai Zen Buddhist temple established by German-born Dorothee Eshin Takatsu, is located in Suzaka, an area not often visited by foreign tourists. I consider myself lucky to have the opportunity to experience the charm and beauty of Horakuan, built on the former site of a 15th century temple destroyed by fire.

I found Horakuan as a result of my relationships with bouts of social anxiety, negative body image, and difficulty maintaining an almost overcrowded schedule. I found it difficult to set aside time to take care of myself and doing household chores felt like climbing a mountain – the laundry and dishes piled up literally looked like one. I also felt a bit depressed because I had been lured into the ungodly modern ritual of mindless late-night social media scrolling and comparison games, while a Netflix show buzzed in the background.

Having never done a meditation retreat before, I felt a bit self-indulgent, but was also looking for an “only in Japan” type experience and a break from my unsatisfying routine.

Admittedly, the Zen retreat at Horakuan Temple is not completely without Western influence, as the Zen priest, Takatsu, is originally from Germany. However, she has been a resident of Japan for 40 years, ordained within the last decade, and is married to a Buddhist monk, which I only recently learned was possible in Japan. Also, she has an aura around her that feels like the physical embodiment of burning incense, so I wanted to listen.

While each retreat at Horakuan Temple is personalized and can be tailored to what visitors want to learn, I will share my itinerary and some of the interesting things I learned about Zen, my host, and dojo life.

Day 1: Ditch your phone and your preconceptions

After marveling at the beauty of the fairy tale-like enchanted temple and farm and taking a few photos, the first thing I did upon arrival, at Takatsu’s request, was to hand over my phone to be locked up for the majority of my three days. stay. We then had tea outside with a view of the mountains and she told me a bit about herself.

Intrigued by Japanese culture from an early age and wanting a separate identity from her twin, Takatsu first came to Japan on a one-year scholarship to study Japanese in Tokyo and research her thesis on the Japanese turners in the Edo period. She then returned to teach German two years later. Although on paper she had fulfilled her dream of living in Japan and teaching full-time, she did not feel complete in Japan’s often conformist society.

“I felt like I was always chasing after the next development,” Takatsu said. She longed for her own identity in which she felt free and was in touch with a deeper meaning.

Then she met a Rinzai priest from Kencho-ji temple in Kamakura, the oldest Zen monastery in Japan. She was instantly intrigued by his energy, the same way I was instantly intrigued by hers: so confident, wise yet unassuming, open yet not talkative, cautious yet against the status quo. A vibe of someone I trusted completely to hand over my phone.

She gave up her comfortable job to become a student of Zen in 2004 and bought the then almost dilapidated property. After hiring architects and designers specializing in temple restoration, she opened Horakuan about 10 years ago not only as a sanctuary for her own family, including a son who is also a priest, but also to lead workshops. and pensions.

We walked around the grounds and gardens then had dinner. All meals at Horakuan Temple are vegetarian and freshly prepared by Takatsu’s husband, Takamichi.

Takatsu then gave me a lesson on intuition, how easy it is to part with it and lose our unique inner voice, how tempting it is to judge things as “good or bad” instead than just being, including things like the weather. , food, experiences and ourselves. She said judgments like these are actually a reason why it’s hard for some people, especially in Japanese work culture, to set aside time to do a retreat like the one I was at.

“People often feel guilty at first for taking time for themselves,” she said. It was a feeling I was strongly connected to.

We ended the night with a meditation, part guided by Takatsu and part Zazen, the practice of being so in the moment and in the breath that you reach a point where your mind has no object at all. opposite of most of our fleeting constant-thoughts.

It was hard for me not to let my mind wander about how I was going to write about Zazen in my article. But when I nearly reached it, I felt like I was bathed in warmth.

Day 2: The Pink Zen Life

I was woken up early by the chiming of temple bells, the first time anything other than my phone alarm has gone off in the day since basic army combat training nearly ten years ago. year. I met Takatsu, dressed in traditional robes, for a quiet meditative walk. Before leaving, she told me to just focus on the texture of the earth under my feet and the sounds like the stream and the breeze. It was the first time in recent memory that I walked in a forest where there was real solitude and unpolluted by the noise of passing cars from nearby highways or hikers.

After the walk, Takatsu guided me through chanting and a Zazen session, still struggling to achieve that state of complete stillness through anxious thoughts but very grateful to try and learn.

We then did the Samu, physical work necessary for the maintenance of the temple which is also practiced in the monasteries. While it’s easy to think of it as a chore or paid job, monks see it as another opportunity for meditation and gratitude and the concept that you have to give to receive. As Takastsu said, wind, rain and sunlight naturally feed a tree, but the seed must be planted first.

There was a part of me that became fully aware, and therefore a bit guilty, of the privilege I have of being part of a demographic that can pay for work rather than making it a forced labor to earn a living. life. But, Samu also carries a cultural connection that makes him special for Zen practitioners.

I chose to take care of the garden for the Samu. The rest of the day consisted of journal prompts and writing poetry, drawing, and reading Zen tarot. I also created a mandala, a geometric pattern with spiritual significance in Buddhism and Hinduism, from flowers in the garden.

Day 3: Let’s go Zazen

Day three was similar to day two, and I started to feel that I was getting better at staying in the moment and not letting my mind drift so much during meditation.

Takatsu gave me a Chinese oracle reading, and then it was time to pack my bags and leave this ethereal secluded haven in which I had already felt so comfortable. I wish I could have stayed a day or two longer as it was one of the most therapeutic experiences I have ever had.

I’m someone who travels a lot, but even in a beautiful place, I can feel chaotic or need to rush and pack as much as possible. Even though Zen values ​​the importance of hard work, it also values ​​stillness, which modern society tends to shame.

But in the stillness is a quest for answers and clarity, and I left with some of the best poetry I’ve written since college, a determination to clean up my house, and a refreshing sense of peace.

The experience made me realize how many distractions we really have, how hard it is for me to focus and pay attention even after all of that is eliminated. It also made me realize how hard it is to not always be thinking about the next activity, or work (like writing this story) or strangers.

Since my stay at the temple, I try to integrate meditation into my daily life and treat my living space as a temple with Samu tasks every morning. But I think the most important takeaway from my stay is changing values, changing outside influences, and caring about what other people think of me, to relearn who I am, as cliché as that sounds.

Plan your escape

Horakuan Temple invites people of all kinds, whether meditation is a daily practice or you’re just curious about culture like me. Clients can book stays for a minimum of two and up to six nights for individual or group retreats.

In general, each retreat includes walking meditations, chanting, Samu, creative artistic activities, Zazen, discussions of Buddha’s teachings, open discussions, vegetarian meals and tea and coffee breaks.

There is also a local yoga teacher who can be booked for an additional fee. Unfortunately, she was tending to a family emergency while I was there.

Horakuan Temple also offers daytime programs, but I think if you’re taking a long trip to get there (it’s about a three-hour drive from Tokyo), it’s worth staying overnight.

The temple does not offer winter retreats because the snow makes the paths inaccessible.

Retreats cost around $100 per night, but prices vary depending on how personalized your experience is.

There is also a completely silent option for $70 per night, but this is only recommended if you are already familiar with zazen and Buddhist practices.

Horakuan Temple is only about a 15-minute drive from the town of Obuse, known for its chestnuts and quaint village streets. I recommend stopping for a more thoughtful walk and some chestnut treats before heading home.

Horakuan Temple is also accessible by train and Takatsu can pick you up from Suzaka Station.

Horakuan Temple

Hours: Retreats and day programs are by reservation only
Address: Horakuan, 1937 Toyooka Kanmachi, Suzaka City, Nagano Prefecture
Getting There : about $30 each way in tolls from Tokyo, or about $70 on the Shinkansen from Tokyo Station.
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