Iyama Hofuku-ji Temple Okayama 井山宝福寺
Located a little over two kilometers north of the JR Soja station in the Kibi district of southern Okayama, Iyama Hofuku-ji, a quiet and atmospheric temple, is not directly on the Kibi Bike Path but is close enough to be a worthwhile detour.
Originally of the Tendai sect, Iyama Hofuku-ji has since 1232 belonged to the Rinzai Zen sect of Zen Buddhism.
The grounds of Iyama Hofuku-ji contain a lot of maple trees so the temple is very popular in the fall season when the colors change. There are several ponds and being a Zen temple there is plenty of raked gravel landscaping.
Behind the main buildings are gardens but they are not normally accessible by the public unless you sign up for one of the regular sunrise zazen (zen meditation) sessions. The vermillion, three storied pagoda is more than 600 years old and is the second oldest pagoda in Okayama.
However, what brings many visitors here is the temples association with the man who later took the name Sesshu, the artist considered by many to be the greatest Japanese painter of all time.
Born in 1420 to a samurai family in nearby Akahama, as a child Sesshu did his initial zen training at Hofukuji. Around age 20 he moved to Kyoto and continued his Zen training and studies at Shokoku-ji Temple and his painting studies under Tensho Shubun, the leading artist of the day.
After about twenty years in Kyoto he moved to what is now Yamaguchi to take over a temple there, and it was from there in 1468 he took a trip to China where he continued to study both Zen and painting.
On his return from China, Sesshu opened a studio in what is now Oita in Kyushu before later moving to Masuda in Shimane where a couple of his gardens still exist, before finally returning to Yamaguchi where most of the still extant of his works were produced, such as Sesshutei Garden.
Sesshu died in 1506 at the age of 87 in Masuda, and his grave is located next to a small museum dedicated to him there.
At Hofuku-ji there are a couple of statues and a painting that illustrate what is probably the most famous story about Sesshu, although how much of the story is actually true will never be known.
According to the legend he was not a particularly good novice, preferring to spend his time drawing rather than memorizing sutras, and one day as a punishment for some infraction he was tied to a post in one of the temple buildings and left.
His tears fell to the floor and with his toe he drew a rat on the floor with his tears. When the abbot returned he was taken aback by what he thought was a real rat at the boy's feet but which turned out to be a drawing.
From then on Sesshu was allowed to continue with his art studies. In the way of legends, the story has been exaggerated and one version now has the drawing being so lifelike that the drawing came to life and chewed through the ropes to free Sesshu.
Access - Getting to Iyama Hofuku-ji
719-1154 Okayama, Soja, Ijirino 1968
Tel: 0866 92 0024
Soja is north west of Okayama city just off National Highway 180. If you are traveling by car, Iyama Hofuku-ji can be visited along with nearby Saijo Inari.
Just outside the temple grounds on the approach to the temple entrance is a small restaurant, Kinki, that serves shojin ryori, vegetarian dishes that were eaten by monks before the prohibition against eating meat and fish was lifted.
Prices range from 2,000 to 6,000 yen, and advance booking of at least 24 hours is needed. English is OK if booking by email.
Shojin Ryori Kinki
1958 Ijirino, Soja-shi
Open from 11am to 9pm
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