Eihei-ji (永平寺), the "Temple of Eternal Peace", officially known as Daihonzan Eihei-ji (大本山永平寺), is located in Fukui Prefecture, about 15 km east of Fukui City. It is one of the two main temples (大本山 daihonzan) of the Sōtō School (曹洞宗 Sōtō-shū) of Zen Buddhism. The other head temple is Sōji-ji (總持寺) in Tsurumi, Yokohama.

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View of Chūjakumon with Sanmon (the Main Gate) in the background

Eihei-ji was founded in 1244 by Dōgen Zenji (道元禅師, 1200-1253), formerly a Buddhist priest of the Tendai School who spent five years studying in China. Upon his return, he founded Sōtō and introduced Zen Buddhism to Japan. Dōgen laid great importance on zazen, sitting meditation, as the central practice of Buddhism. After his death, disputes over the abbacy erupted, resulting in a schism: Sōtō's second great founder, Keizan Jōkin (瑩山紹瑾, 1268–1325), continued to spread Dōgen's teachings and founded Sōji-ji first on the Noto Peninsula and later in Tsurumi in modern-day Yokohama. Eihei-ji meanwhile lost most of its influence under a line of abbots tracing back to Jakuen, one of Dōgen's Chinese disciples. In 1468, Keizan's line took back control of Eihei-ji.


Sanshokaku, the reception hall, is renowned for its ceiling comprising 230 paintings of birds and flowers, the work of 144 famous Japanese artists.

Eihei-ji was destroyed by fire several times, In the late 16th century it was burned to the ground by the Ikkō-Ikki. The oldest structures still extant today date back to 1749.


One of the covered corridors leading up to the Hattō (法堂), the Dharma Hall, used for lectures and important ceremonies. It is interesting to note that the shiny wooden stairs which are polished every day are slightly sloping.

The Eihei-ji temple complex was built on a hillside and follows the basic principles of Zen architecture (七堂伽藍 shichidō garan). It is surrounded by tall cedars trees some of which must have seen the construction of the temple. Nowadays, the Eihei-ji consists of over 70 buildings spread over 33 hectares. Some but not all buildings are open to visitors.

Eihei-ji is an active monastery that serves as Sōtō's primary training centre. At any given time, around 200 monks and nuns receive regular training which lasts from three months to two years. Visitors are free to explore the temple grounds but should be tactful enough not to disrupt monastic practice.



Left, the Chūjakumon (中雀門, Central Sparrow Gate) built in 1852, to the right the Butsuden (仏殿. the Buddha Hall) with its stone floor and double roof. The main altar comprises three statues of Amida Sanzonbutsu (阿弥陀三尊仏), the Buddha of the Past, the Present, and the Future).



The carved friezes above the main altar of the Butsuden visualise different stages in the training of Zen practitioners.


Another glimpse at the Butsuden.



The Jōyōden (承陽殿, Founders' Hall) is a mausoleum containing the images and the ashes of Dōgen and his immediate successors. Koun Ejō (孤雲懐奘, 1198-1280), Sōtō's second patriarch, initiated the custom to serve the images daily as if they were still alive to show respect and appreciation for their teachings.



The Hattō (法堂, Dharma Hall) was rebuilt in 1843 and is the place where daily services are held in the morning, at midday, and in the evening. The inner altar displayed above contains an image of Shokanzeon Bosatsu (聖観世音菩薩), the Bodhisattva of Compassion and four white lions called "a-un no shishi" (阿吽の獅子): "a" is an allusion to their open mouths and to "teaching by words", while "un" refers to their closed mouths and to "teaching through deeds".



The Shōrōdō (鐘楼堂, belfry) is called "ōbon shō", the "Great Brahman Bell", indicating the "true nature of all beings". Priest trainees ring this bell four times every day: during morning zazen, at the start of midday service, at the start of evening zazen, and at bedtime. The bronze bell dates to 1327 and is an Important Cultural Property. In 1963, the belfry was reconstructed in the Kamakura style.



The panoramic view of Eihei-ji shown above displays a copy of a single piece of handmade washi paper that measures about 5.5 square metres. It was painted by a priest in Aichi who worked four years and a half to complete it in 1964. The painting is displayed on the second floor of the Kichijokaku, the visitors' centre.

Other notable buildings are
  • the Sōdō (僧堂), the Monks' Hall ( also called 座禅堂 Zazendō or Hall of Clouds 雲堂 Undō) where the priests in training practice zazen on platforms called tan. Each platform holds two rows of six tatami mats on which the trainee priests do zazen, eat and sleep. Talking is strictly prohibited. In the centre of the hall is a statue of Monju Bosatu, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom.
  • the Dakuin (大庫院), the refectory of Eihei-ji, is a three-storey building with a basement built in 1930. Here, vegetarian meals for all priests and trainees are prepared. The total space comprises 750 tsubo, some 2,250 square metres.
  • the Sanmon (山門, the Main Gate) has two storeys and was constructed in 1749. Inside the gate are statues of the Four Heavenly Kings (四天王 Shitennō), on the second floor the 500 rakan (羅漢), those who have gained insight into the true nature of existence and has achieved nirvana, are worshipped.
  • the Tōsu (東司, the toilet) is one of the three important places of practice where all priests must keep complete silence. Dōgen's Shinji Shōbōgenzō (真字正法眼蔵) includes one chapter describing appropriate toilet manners. Most of these rules are still followed today.
  • the Shidōden (祠堂殿), the Memorial Service Hall for lay followers. It contains thousands of memorial tablets and an 18-metre long set of ojuzu (数珠), Buddhist counting beads.
  • the Yokushitsu (浴室), the bath, another place where one must observe complete silence.

Sanro Program: stay one night at Eihei-ji


Visitors, whether affiliated with a Sōtō Zen Buddhist organisation or not, can apply to stay overnight at the temple and participate in the monks' daily routine. All that is required (apart from a 9000-yen donation per person and an application at least one month in advance) is to follow the schedule and the rules of the temple as well as show respect for Zen Buddhism and for Japanese tradition and customs. Find more information on the One-Night Sanro program here.

More images in our Eihei-ji album.

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Access:

From Fukui City: Keifuku Bus (Eiheiji Liner) from JR Fukui Station (hourly, 720 JPY, 30 minutes).

Address: 5-15 Shihi, Eiheiji, Yoshida-gun, Fukui 910-1228; phone: 0776-63-3188, fax: 0776-63-3631.
Admission: open daily 08:00-17:30 (May-October), 08:30-17:00 (November-April), closed on 1 January and depending on the monastic schedule; adults: 500 JPY, elementary and high-school students 200 JPY.


Map: