South of Fukuyama, between the Sanyo Shinkansen Line and the coast, sits the Shinshoji complex, a gathering of gardens, galleries, temples, cafes and installations. Whether you’re searching for inner peace, a cup of matcha with a garden view, or cutting-edge and traditional art, there is something for nearly everyone at Shinshoji. An unusual way to describe a temple complex, perhaps, but Shinshoji defies easy categorization.
Take the Kohtei pavilion, for example. Evoking a pagoda, a dreadnought or a piece of modernist architecture, Kyoto-based design collective Sandwich took the temple’s commission to create this structure as a tribute to men and women that lost their lives in industrial accidents. Upon closer inspection, the ship-like contours resolve into a skin of wooden shingles, installed by a firm of master carpenters from Kyoto. Inside the pavilion, there is a sprawling meditation room, and around it, gardens of stone and juniper.
The Shodo is another of the complex’s structures that blends traditional methods and avant garde design, this design coming courtesy of Terunobu Fujimori. Since the 1990s, Fujimori has been responsible for some of the most interesting buildings in the country, including the Takasugi An Tea House in Nagano and the whimsical and truly bizarre "Flying Mud Boat." For the Shodo, Fujimori attempted to blend the building into the landscape, going so far as to plant a pine on the roof. The Shodo functions now as the visitor center of Shinshoji.
From the mighty Somon gate at the entrance to the temple to the diminutive Daitetsudo, the complex has many fine examples of traditional architecture, as well, many of them centuries-old and relocated from distant temple grounds. The Gankuin, for example, was relocated from Shiga Prefecture, and has a history stretching back to the 14th century. Some structures, like the temple’s bath house, are fairly rare in Zen temples (the bath house is open to visitors, as well).
The zen gardens are one of the reasons visitors come to Shinshoji from far and wide. The dry garden in the complex is one of the largest in the world and inspires a sense of wonder as much as it does quiet reflection. The gardens are impressive in all seasons, but particularly late in the year, when the leaves are falling or turning crimson. Connoisseurs of the art form of traditional Japanese gardens will find much to admire in Shinshoji’s grounds, but neophytes won’t be disappointed.
It’s nearly impossible to sum up the treasures of Shinshoji and one visit is probably not enough to soak up what Shinshoji has to offer. The gardens alone, not to mention Shogondo and its collection of Hakuin’s paintings of Zen patriarch Bodhidharma will fill up an entire day. If you need a break from all the reflection, stop by the Gokando for soba or the Gakuin for the sencha or matcha tea set. Since it’s Japan, there are, of course, souvenirs to take home, including a set of financiers and cakes, offered as a collaboration between Pierre Hermé and Kohei Nawa of the Sandwich design collective.