Omote-Ura: At the Heart of Zen Buddhism in the Mountains of Western Japan

November 6, 2017

Because of the four-day weekend, I decided to visit my host family from last summer. They live in Kanazawa, the capital of Ishikawa Prefecture, which is located in the middle of the west coast of the main island of Honshu. Having lived in Tokyo for almost two months now, I have become used to the sprawling metropolis. Save for a day trip here and there, before this weekend, I had yet to really escape the city.

However, as I took the high-speed bus from Tokyo to Kanazawa, I was reminded of the beauty of natural Japan, and why I had come to love it. Whereas the east side of Japan, with cities like Tokyo and Osaka, is considered the “front” of Japan, the west side is considered the “back” of Japan. In Japanese, this distinction is called omote-ura (表裏), and it is a concept that actually applies widely to Japanese culture, whether in regards to social relations, corporate culture, or personal views.

Put simply, the distinction between omote (表, surface, exterior) and ura (裏, bottom, rear), is the difference between the public face that people know about and see, and the private face that people do not. When applied to Japan geographically, the east side is the omote because it is the face of Japan that everyone knows about, particularly in the case of foreigners. On the other hand, the west side is the ura, the so-called “inner Japan,” which people, including both foreigners and those who live on the omote side, usually do not come into contact with at all.

However, while one could say that the ura of Japan, being the “inside” of Japan and consisting of mostly what is considered the inaka (田舎, countryside), also has implications of inferiority in comparison to the omote, I would venture to say that that is not the case. There is something superficial about just knowing the omote, because one is then just scratching the surface of Japan, rather than getting to know it in its entirety. As a result, although omote-ura is a culturally Japanese concept, I believe that it is something that can apply to other countries as well.

I would like to extend this concept briefly to Zen Buddhism, because yesterday my host family and I took a day trip to Fukui Prefecture, the prefecture directly southwest of Ishikawa. For the main destination of our trip, we went to Eihei-Ji, which is one of the two head temples of the Soto Sect of Zen Buddhism. It also acts a monastery, where hundreds of monks train and learn about Zen Buddhist teachings. Located in the mountains of Fukui, it feels like another world apart, a religious retreat or escape for those who desire it.

Nowadays, we often hear about people talking about being zen. Well-known aspects of Japanese culture such as matcha (the tea ceremony) or Zen gardens were popularized through their patronage by Zen Buddhism. However, it seems that the use of “zen” and these aspects of Zen Buddhist culture do not capture the entirety of Zen Buddhism. As such, Zen Buddhism is also an aspect of Japanese culture that has both an omote and an ura. What, then, is the ura of Zen Buddhism?

While I have only just begun to explore the depths of this question, through what I saw and learned at Eihei-Ji, it would seem as if Zen Buddhism, like other religions, involves a certain way of life that revolves around a central purpose. In this case, that purpose would be achieving freedom from the cycle of life and death (samsara) through enlightenment. To that end, monks live an extremely disciplined life at the monastery according to the rules laid out by the Soto Sect. Although I went to Eihei-Ji as a tourist, and thus mostly interacted with its omote, I still got to catch a glimpse of the ura that lay within. As a result, I am determined to continue interacting with the ura of Japan and its culture, and I would hope that others are encouraged to explore those depths as well.

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