The Fukuoka City Museum is currently holding an exhibit called “The First Zen Temple Shofukuji” until June 16. As the title of this exhibit implies, Shofukuji Temple in Hakata-ku has the distinction of being Japan’s first Zen temple. The monk Eisai founded the temple in 1195 in order to spread the word of Zen, which he had learned in the southern Sung region of China. A framed inscription declaring Shofukuji as Japan’s first Zen temple hangs on the on the temple’s Sanmon Gate; it is said to have been written by Emperor Go-Toba.
Inside the spacious grounds, there are many lush trees as well as the prominent Sanmon Gate and Butsuden Hall. The perfect spot for a quiet stroll, the temple has become a popular site for tourists. Shofukuji’s Zen monastery is well preserved, but it is not open to the general public because it is still in use. The monastery houses several treasures that are rarely put on display, so this exhibit affords visitors an invaluable opportunity to view them.
Eisai also brought the custom of drinking tea from China to Japan. Tea drinking was widespread in China, and it was highly appreciated by Zen monks undergoing strict training because it was used as a medicine that was thought to reinvigorate the body. Eisai even wrote a manuscript called Treatise on Drinking Tea for Health, which describes the positive effects of tea.
It is said that Eisai brought tea trees from China and planted them on the grounds of Shofukuji and in the Sefuri Mountains. Even today, tea culture still plays an important role at Shofukuji, where an ancient style of tea ceremony called yotsugashira chakai is still practiced. Meanwhile, the nampo style of ceremony associated with the Kuroda Clan is still practiced at Enshoji, a sub-temple of Shofukuji. The Shofukuji exhibit will also feature tea ceremonies held in these old styles, so if you are interested in the Zen art of tea ceremony, don’t miss this opportunity.
Originally published by Fukuoka Now (May 2013)