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Zenno-ji in Hojo

A Zen temple with a fine view of the Seto Inland Sea

Zenno-ji is a temple of the Zen sect of Buddhism, located high on the foothills of Mt. Takanawa in Hojo, the northern part of Matsuyama. It offers a fine view of the Seto Inland Sea. This is no accident of scenery however – the temple site used to be one of the bases of the Kono clan, the pirates turned coast guards who taxed traffic on the Inland Sea and came to dominate the area. Little of this history is apparent today, except for the mark of the Kono clan decorating the gables and curtains of many temples and shrines in the area.

There are two main halls at Zenno-ji, one with a green copper roof, the other with a huge roof of beautifully weathered tiles. The copper-roofed hall houses a number of highly expressive statues in both fantastic and naturalistic styles. The Buddhas riding on an elephant and lion fall into the fantastic category, although the Buddha in between them has the sort of face you might see on any street in Japan today. It’s unusual to find statues of this quantity and quality in one place, openly on display.

The garden inside the compound of Zenno-ji is small but filled with stone features and beautiful trees that change with the seasons. In front of the large hall stand two huge, attractively rounded kinmokusei bushes (Sweet Osmanthus) that produce a delicious scent in autumn. Local people come in droves to see the cherry blossoms that bloom around Zenno-ji in spring. From afar, the green roof of the temple appears to be floating in a cloud of the palest pink. A frisky sheep-dog lives behind the priest’s house – he answers to the name Zen, and likes to be stroked.

A new ossuary is has been built at Zenno-ji in a rather unusual octagonal shape, with roof tiles sent specially from Kyoto. The shape of the whole is mirrored in its octagonal pillars too. This offers a rare opportunity to see a newly constructed temple building.

One evening I stood chatting to the priest of Zenno-ji who was sweeping the grounds at dusk. As an occasional practitioner of zazen myself, I asked if they ever hold zazen sessions there. “No”, he said, “the country people complain that it hurts their legs. Of course your legs hurt, it’s zazen!”

It makes sense to combine a visit to Zenno-ji with a walk up the pair of hills behind the temple that are jointly known as Fufuyama, or husband and wife mountain. The views are spectacular in all directions.

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