Tranquil Tokyo: Your Guide to Finding Zen in one of the world's busiest cities
When you’re lost in the hustle and bustle of the big cities of Japan, it can be easy to forget that Japanese culture is deeply rooted in the principles of simplicity, enlightenment, and oneness with nature. Hardly seems that way when gazing upon Tokyo Skytree or Shibuya crossing, right? Still, Japan is home to Zen Buddhism, and core elements of Zen are evident all throughout the country, even the mega cities like Tokyo.
In this article, I’d like to offer some ways that you can find Zen in Tokyo, both in the religious and philosophical aspects of it, while also offering some zen-inspired places that will give you some needed calm and peace of mind. You might be surprised how easy it is to find.
So without further ado...
A Little About Zen...
Most of us are familiar with the connotation behind the word "Zen," which is something that is enlightened, serene, simple, and/or stress-free, but here in Japan, there are deep religious and philosophical meanings behind it with historical roots tracing back to the 1200s.
Buddhism originally came to Japan in 619 when the Imperial family commissioned a group of envoys to travel to China. The Kentōshi, as the envoys were called, brought back writing, technology, and religion. Still, this form of Buddhism was based on the Ramayana teachings. It was not until the 1200s that Mahayana teachings reached Japan, which when combined with elements of the Chinese Chan Buddhism eventually became what we now know as Zen Buddhism here in Japan.
Zen Buddhism maintains its roots in its Indian and Chinese teachings, involved the use of sutras and meditation, but adds some distinctly Japanese elements to it. Among those are the principles of serenity, oneness with nature, and asymmetry. (I particularly enjoy the concept of asymmetry, which offers that one is all, and all is one, so imperfection is beautiful in that it is balanced out somewhere else in the world and offers a representation of our connection with our surroundings.) These principles married well with the teachings of Bushido, and the notion of zen warriors became popularized among many clans throughout Japan.
Zen teachings also began to permeate many traditional practices in Japan, and nowhere is it more evident than in the Japanese tea ceremony. The simplicity of the tea, the equal status of all who partake in the ceremony, and the serene surroundings in which the ceremonies are meant to be held all have their roots in those key zen teachings.
Where to practice Zen:
There are several temples throughout Japan that will offer visitors a chance to practice Zen meditation or listen to Zen teachings. You can even find a fair few in Tokyo, and here is the one I recommend:
Located a stone's throw away from Kamiyacho station, the Seishoji Temple is one of Tokyo's most storied Zen temples. Unfortunately, the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 destroyed all of the original buildings, so some of its historic charm has faded. Thankfully, most of the structures have been faithfully reconstructed.
Now visitors can walk the grounds and enjoy the various statues dedicated to Buddhist Kannon, or, if desired, can enter the main hall to partake in zazen, or seated meditation. Seishoji welcomes anyone at all who is interested in zazen, and depending on the temple’s affairs for the day the times for meditation can be quite flexible from 9am through to 5pm. Zazen focuses on breathing and posture -- it’s said that if your posture is correct, your breathing falls into place more naturally, and as a consequence of those two factors a person’s mind is said to settle as well. Since you’re going to be sitting for a period of time, the temple advises to wear loose, comfortable pants rather than anything constrictive. And in case you’re wondering, they usually set a timeframe of approximately 20 minutes meditation for beginners, whereas those who practice zazen regularly tend to meditate for double that at 40 minutes. Please be aware that if you wish to do so that it is taken very seriously, so no photography or horseplay--this is for serious meditation only!
Where to enjoy some of Zen's key principles:
Yugen 幽玄- subtlety
Sometimes referred to as the principle of "hidden beauty," the notion of simplicity contrasts some of the more ostentatious trappings of modern society, especially in major metropolitan areas (just head to Kabukicho and the Robot Restaurant and you'll understand what I mean about ostentatious). No, zen is about simplicity and finding beauty in something unexpected, and for me, there is one place that fits that bill:
When you approach Koso-an, you'll likely be unimpressed--there is not much that meets the eye as you enter the building. Located in the suburb of Jiyugaoka, Koso-an is a tea shop hidden inside what looks from all accounts to be a traditional residential house (save for the small sign out the front). Still, when you do enter, you'll find yourself in a simple but beautiful tea house that opens to a beautiful garden. With tea and food set offerings ranging from 500-1000 yen, Koso-an offers the perfect place to enjoy a cup of tea.
Koso-an is open from 11:00 - 18:30 daily, but is closed every Wednesday. Given the inauspicious exterior, please be sure to check the map below!
Shizen 自然 - Nature
Zen wa ichi. Ichi wa Zen. ("All is one. One is all.") The oneness with the world demands a oneness with nature. As such, an core principle of Zen is to be at peace in natural surroundings. Tokyo offers several places with which to do that. Here are a few:
Shinjuku is probably the last place that comes to mind when you think of anything to do with zen. After all, being the home of the Robot Restaurant (and all the sensory overload that accompanies it) seems to make the area mutually exclusive to any concept of calm or peacefulness. In spite of that, Shinjuku Gyoen is the oasis to the desert of bright lights, loud noises, bars, and clubs that you will find in this neck of the woods. As well as having beautiful gardens to look at, another draw of the park (which can also find yourself some zen) are the two teahouses within the park grounds. There, you can get yourself some matcha and wagashi, and enjoy Japan’s way of tea while you relax and regroup for more sightseeing later on.
Shinjuku Gyoen is open 9:00 to 16:00 daily, though it's closed on Mondays and December 29th through January 3rd for New Year's.
When I first stumbled upon Hamarikyu Gardens, I was killing time in Shimbashi waiting for my next business meeting. I'd already had a long morning and I was pretty exhausted, so I was just looking for a place to rest for a bit and recharge my batteries. All the cafes were full, though, so I found myself wandering. Wouldn't you know, I popped up in Hamarikyu Gardens and found a historically rich, peaceful escape from the grind of the day. Ever since, it has held a special place in my heart and is certainly somewhere that I would qualify as having a deeply zen quality to it, if nothing else but for its ability to help you escape the stress and competition of the city.
The Hamarikyu gardens once belonged to the Tokugawa shogunate and used to serve as a separate residence grounds for the Shogun, and later, the Imperial family.
The park itself is surrounded by a seawater moat filled by Tokyo Bay, and in fact, the name itself captures both of those facts. Hama means "Seaside," and Rikyu means "Detached Palace."
Like Shinjuku Gyoen, there is a tea house on the premises, so you can sit and enjoy a relaxing cup of matcha to while away the day.
The park is open 9:00 to 17:00 daily--closed only for the New Year's Holiday (December 29th to January 1st).
Just a little bit off the beaten path, you'll find another example of an Edo-era garden that grew up under the Tokugawa shogunate (like Hamarikyu Gardens). Rikugien gardens is inspired by mountains and lakes and seeks to replicate those aspects of nature in spite of being located in the heart of the city. These inspired gardens itself provide a perfect place to stroll or sit and meditate, finding your place among the natural beauty of the park.
Like the two before, Rikugien also offers a tea house on the premises. The Park is open from 9:00 to 17:00 daily, closed only for the New Year's Holidays (29 December to 1 January).
Seijaku 静寂- tranquility, stillness, serenity
This is probably the principle that most westerners associate with Zen. I've lost count of the times I've heard of a tranquil space referred to as "zen," but hey, at least there is some merit to that usage of the term. In proper Zen teaching however, the tranquility and stillness one seeks is less about the surroundings than about oneself. The goal is to find the serenity in one's own soul, so the role of the setting is to serve as a conduit for that purpose. For me, that meant finding those places that were most juxtaposed to the busier, more stressful, or more ostentatious parts of the city. Thus, here are my two favorite places for finding serenity in Tokyo:
Located in the Minami Aoyama area of Tokyo, just a short distance away from the big name stores like Prada, Louis Vuitton and Gucci, is this spot that will have you feeling like you’ve stepped into another world. Nezu Museum houses pre-modern Japanese and East Asian art, but the part that will have you surprised is the gardens that exist within the museum grounds. Every bit the urban oasis, there are multiple teahouses, a bamboo grove, stone lanterns, and seasonal displays such as their famed irises all tucked inside this hidden gem. Incredibly, the museum is less than a 10 minute walk from Omotesando Station’s A5 exit, but once you’re in the garden grounds you’ll feel a million miles away, enjoying a sense of tranquility in a most unexpected place.
Nezu Museum is open 10:00 to 17:00 every day except Mondays and during the New Year's holidays. The Entrance Fee is 1100 yen for adults, 800 yen for high school and above, and free for children.
Imperial Palace Seimon Stone Bridge
When I used to work in Tokyo, this was the one place that I loved to visit to find my center. Located a stone's throw away from Tokyo Station, the area in front of the Imperial Palace's Main Gate (Seimon) is one of the most tranquil places in all of Tokyo, juxtaposed to some of the busiest. Southeast of the area is the civic center, where Japanese bureaucrats work until the wee hours of the morning. Due east is the Maronouchi area, full of big-time corporations and high end shops. North is the Kanda/Akihabara area, which any Otaku out there knows is the mecca for videogames, anime, and all sorts of other modern hobbies.
In front of the Imperial Palace, however, gazing upon a bridge that is almost never used and surrounded by wide open space, one can feel at peace in the tranquility of the setting. Even if i only had a few minutes to spare, I loved stopping here to find some peace before continuing on in my hectic day.
The area is open to the public with no limits on hours, so feel free to visit at anytime to find your zen!
So there you have it...
...your guide to finding Zen in Tokyo. Perhaps seeming to be among the unlikeliest of places for finding simplicity, tranquility, or nature at first glance, Tokyo offers a surprising amount of places to find respite for your mind, body, and soul. While I definitely recommend maximizing your vacation and partaking in some of the wilder options the city has to offer, I also suggest that you allow yourself to connect with this other side of Japanese culture and tradition. Thus, I say zehi, take some time to find your inner peace while journeying in Japan!