Secrets to Longevity: Ikebana and Dharuma at Sojiji temple
Japan is the global leader of life expectancy rankings. People look young, their lifestyles are active, their diets healthy.
Meeting an artist at the Ikebana exhibition and talking to a monk at Sojiji castle gave me an insight to how Japanese people achieve longevity without stress, satisfaction without pills and long lasting beauty without botox.
While you enjoy the pictures, taking in a healthy dose of tranquillity, I will report about the temple, share Japan’s longevity secrets, explain why Ikebana apparently helps and introduce Dharuma to you.
SOJIJI TEMPLE: 2-1 Tsurumi, Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture 230-8686, Japan, www.sojiji.jp
We were invited to Sojiji temple by our hosts who rent out their house to us in Tokyo.
It was the 30th of March 2013 and we were lucky to still see some Sakura, which came very early this year.
The petals were already falling and looked like snowflakes.
The temple complex features a statue of Unsui monks who travel from monastery to monastery to exchange Zen teachings. These individuals have made it from the temple to Paris in the beginning of the 20th century.
To commemorate the occasion, Paris has the exact same statue in a park on display.
The impressive statue of Shokanzenbosatsu. She is a bodhisattva – a Buddhist existence who embodies compassion and enlightenment.
Let’s go inside the temple.
We shall start at Koushakudai Hall.
This monk was our guide at Sojiji temple. He told us about his ascetic training routine and shared his wisdom on how to stay healthy and young – but most of all happy.
Looking like a teenager despite being well in his mid twenties. He had a smoldering charisma and a boyish grin, showing off a decent amount of humour, style and wit. Sort of like Jason Statham in The Transporter without the boom-action.
We walked around the temple complex for one hour with our guide, starting at the information office at Koushakudai hall, where you can drop a few coins into the big wooden casket and make a wish.
The sparkling smooth floor is cleaned twice a day with a simple cloth and water by the monks. Whenever we passed other monks we were greeted with a bowing gesture. To avoid collision we were to walk on the left side, lining up like the monks.
The original Sojiji temple in Noto burned down in 1898. The monks chose Yokohama as the new location to rebuild the temple in 1911 due to its proximity to the port, which allowed a wider religious exchange with east Japan. Sojiji temple is already 100 years old.
Fire disaster prevention formed the outline of the temple, being divided in east and west areas connected by a looooong corridor.
Our guide was in his second trainee year and decided to stay for a third. He came here after he had obtained his university degree. He said that there are about 150 monks living here at the moment, but not everyone makes it through their first year – some find it difficult to adjust to strict temple life, which is following Chinese Zen Buddhism.
We did a round trip at the temple complex and walked through many halls: Shuryou, Houkoudou, Koshoukutsu, Butsuden, Daisodou, Shiuntai, Taihoukan and back to Koushakudai.
The names of ancestors are written on these golden spirit tablets (Ihai) symbolising the spiritual presence of the deceased.
Sanshoukaku, the visitor centre.
The temple has an open structure, so that you can walk out into the green areas.
The views from the corridors are nice but you got to get used to the fresh breeze coming in.
Tranquil it was.
I am smiling here despite my teeth chattering due to the freezing cold.
At this hall Zazen meditation is performed – visitors can sign up for sessions.
The paintings on the doors were beautiful.
Dragons are guarding a fountain.
From Houkoudou up to Daisodou we walked through a tunnel-corridor. It was very cold and the monks were walking barefoot, some had thin white socks that looked like shoes.
Decorating the walls of the corridor were black and white pictures, showing scenes of their daily life which our monk elaborated for us.
Big bells are used to wake everyone up and to ring for meal times. Quietness is a virtue at the temple.
This is not a ghost but bad photography showing a running monk calling (I mean ringing) for the day.
JAPANESE LONGEVITY SECRETS
1. Eat to live – do not live to eat.
Cut your calorie intake by half. Japanese monks look great as they are on a healthy vegetarian diet with no animal proteins and fat – the main cause for diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol and heart failure.
All chief priests of the temple are known for their longevity, living to be over ninety. Our guide told us that they have rice gruel, tea and pickles for breakfast, rice with vegetables for lunch and rice gruel for dinner.
2. Move around.
Walk at least 10,000 steps a day. Walking does strengthen your body physically and it activates your brain cells.
3. Think positively.
Socialize, enjoy the small things in life, set goals and keep yourself busy. Think about living long.
Be open minded and flexible … to new perspectives.
And… practice IKEBANA.
I was told that Ikebana teachers are one of the occupation groups that live longest in Japan. Ikebana is the traditional Japanese art of flower arrangement.
The origins of Ikebana can be traced back to Shinto and Buddhist religious practices related to flower offerings. During the Edo period it made its way from a formerly aristocratic, male dominated practice to an urban bourgeoisie, nowadays mainly female hobby.
It is true that you will see a lot of grey haired people doing Ikebana but then remember the connection to longevity. I can see myself surrounded by flowers making flowery art when I am retired.
Here comes the Ikebana. The annual exhibition is housed at Sojiji temple, to which we were also invited by our great hosts. Thank you!
Ikebana is not just about arranging flowers but about the interplay between spaces – occupied by flowers and air.
This is one huge piece of art. About the size of that traditional sliding door behind it.
The white tags next to the flower arrangements state the name of the artist and the art work.
The sight of Ikebana is said to bring about a state of serenity and peace to the viewer.
To reach a state of increased concentration and peace of mind before going to battle, samurais would perform Ikebana and participate in tea ceremonies – which was symbolic to purify the samurai’s heart and mind.
Ikebana is a way to ‘chill out’ and to appreciate nature and details that previously had gone unnoticed. The viewer is said to become more patient and tolerant to differences.
It might seem like randomly thrown in flowers into a pot, but it is a complex process of intentionally leaving out and adding, in order to let this delicate balancing act get the centre stage and be visible from every possible angle.
Ikebana is a disciplined art form with rules of construction. All material used have to be natural. Branches, leaves, grass, blossoms, weeds form graceful lines and colour compositions.
Ikebana is all about a delicate and changing interplay between various flowers and plants.
I really liked this rosy lightness which was shining in the cold air.
One of my favourite arrangements. The pink branches look as if suspended in space with nothing supporting it. A pleasant sight.
I found myself back in the period of Edo.
This tremendous example was about as tall as I am. (By that I mean to say, it was very tall!)
There are nine different plants involved in this arrangement, forming one perfectly morphed unity.
For the artist it is a way to present plants in the most perfect way.
For the photographer it is to capture the artist’s vision.
For the spectator the task is to find the right angle to appreciate the arrangements. The Ikebana artist (in the middle) explains viewing-rules to our hosts Asami and Akira (to the left), Tomek (to the right) and me (behind the camera in a weird angle).
We had been trying to figure out the right angles, while Asami had found her personal perspective, using Ikebana decoration to turn the image of DHARUMA into a Roman emperor. Asami sure has the ‘right angle’ for great picture shots – she runs a photo studio with her husband in Tokyo (http://www.studioa2.jp).
Bodhidharma is the founder of Zen Buddhism and modelled after him is the Dharuma doll, a popular souvenir and symbol of goal setting and good luck to the Japanese.
Notice how the round dolls lack eyes. This is because the keeper of the doll draws one eye in when setting a personal goal and gives Dharuma full sight (‘enlightenment’) after the goal was achieved. Dharuma is meant to motivate and help realise plans and wishes.
You can also hold the wooden doll to set your mind on something and focus on goals.
Now that you have learned about Sojiji, Ikebana and Dharuma – stay focused on flowers and pick your favourite Hanami spots with us, if you like!