Photo: JR East Railway Company via JNTO

Japan's New Bullet Train Line Takes You to the Country's Buddhist Heartland

Japan Train Travel
by Jacob Lewis Mar 13, 2024

Neon Japanese characters pulsed on centuries-old pillars. As the techno beat dropped, the golden statue of Amida Buddha seemed to dance in the strobe lights.

It was with a vaguely defined ambition of finding “zen” that I had set off on a rail journey through Japan’s Buddhist heartland. I had figured that my travels — timed to coincide with a new bullet train line to the little-visited Hokuriku region — would involve more meditating than raving.

But here I was, swept up in a hypnotic spectacle. Asakura Gyosen, the abbot of Shoonji Temple on the outskirts of Fukui City, orchestrated the soundtrack, masterfully blending his past as a Kyoto DJ with centuries-old tradition.

Standing behind a MacBook in his mixing booth following his gig, the 56-year-old chief priest talked me through the deeper meaning behind the spectacular techno service that I have just had the rare privilege to experience.

“The illuminations decorate the hall in an image of the Buddhist world, the Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss,” he told me.

Gesturing toward the temple’s intricate gold leaf carvings, Asakura explained how for a thousand years, Japanese artisans sought to represent Pure Land, the Buddhist afterlife, painstakingly crafting devotional art. Geometric patterns blasting from high powered projectors and a techno beat are simply a modern take on this impulse – a way to communicate the “place of limitless light and space” described in Buddhist scriptures.

“As a DJ, I discovered the power of music to convey profound ideas and the essence of Buddhism,” Asakura explained, his smile radiating a serene joy. “Now, in my role as a monk, I find joy in sharing this way of thinking with everyone.”

The results are profound. Asakura clearly has an extraordinary talent for composing otherworldly soundscapes, which he pairs with his mind-bending visuals. The entire set is performed just twice a year in a ceremony to honor Shinran, the sect’s founder. However, a light show and the temple’s cafe, Show-on G (which serves transcendent chocolate brownies) are open to visitors on weekends.

I was in Hokuriku, a region with unique connections to the Buddhist faith, to trace the route of Japan’s newest bullet train line ahead of its arrival on March 16, 2024.

The Hokuriku Shinkansen, previously terminating at Kanazawa, will soon extend another 77 miles into rural Ishikawa and neighboring Fukui prefecture, terminating at Tsuruga with five new stops along the way. Passengers will rocket at nearly 200 miles per hour from Tokyo’s bright lights to sleepy onsen towns, arts and craft villages, and hidden temples.

The new Hokuriku Shinkansen extension is set to slash almost an hour off journeys from the capital to this little-known slice of Japan between the Japan Sea and the Ryōhaku mountain range. Until then, I would explore the region the old-fashioned way — by local train.

New beginnings at the end of the line


Photo: Jacob Lewis

My journey began where the Shinkansen currently terminates, in Kanazawa, the capital of Ishikawa prefecture. A stone’s throw from the station, I checked into Chaya Ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn and a lesson in less-is-more luxury.

Dinner was an eight-course kaiseki affair in a private dining room featuring Kanazawa specialties such as duck simmered in soy broth and grilled black trout. Meanwhile, a wood-paneled public bath and serene garden completed the feel of an urban sanctuary.

Compact and walkable, Kanazawa is well-preserved and has an intriguing geisha district, Higashi Chaya (think Kyoto’s famous Gion without the overtourism), and the exquisite Kenroku-en landscape gardens, rated among Japan’s finest.

I started by hitting up Omicho Market, the city’s bustling fresh food market since the Edo Period (1603-1868). A vibrant maze of covered streets and alleyways, it’s home to 200 shops and stalls offering everything from specialty coffee and fresh seafood to soy ice cream wrapped in edible gold leaf — a nod to the city’s status as Japan’s gold leaf capital and center of traditional crafts.

Next, I had planned to visit the D.T. Suzuki Museum where I hoped to learn how this Kanazawa-born philosopher helped popularize Zen in the West — influencing everything from iPhone design to the billion dollar mindfulness industry. Sadly, the museum, with its serene Contemplative Space that extends into a Water Mirror Garden, was closed for winter renovations.


Photo: Manuel Ascanio/Shutterstock

Instead, I made time for Myoryuji Temple. While the Zen sect of Buddhism may be known for its minimalist design ethic, the creators of Myoryuji, the so-called “Ninja Temple,” went all out. A relic of the rival Nichiren sect, it’s a far cry from tranquil minimalism.

From the outside, Myoryuji Temple looks about as threatening as a garden shed. But step inside and this place gives a whole new meaning to “temple of doom.” More a fortress than a sanctuary, it was built in the 1600s when military structures were banned, prompting its creators to find ingenious loopholes — two secret stories, 23 rooms, and a mind-boggling 29 staircases form a defensive maze. Secret passages, concealed peepholes, and rumored tunnels connecting to nearby Kanazawa Castle speak of a time when faith and warfare were closely intertwined.

Anyone foolish enough to attack would have encountered a gauntlet of trapdoors, hidden chambers, and trick staircases. The guided tour was pure tension. I made every effort to avoid touching any walls, lest I trigger long-forgotten poison darts or some hidden floor of spikes. Even the collection box for offerings had a trapdoor — a sinister touch that even the Squid Games would struggle to top.

The first new stop on the Hokuriku Shinkansen line


Photo: TimeDepot.Twn/Shutterstock

Leaving Kanazawa by local train, I disembarked at Komatsu Station, the first new stop on the line following the Hokuriku Shinkansen extension. A short 20-minute bus ride from there delivered me to the snow-covered village of Bekkumachi. In the foothills of the sacred Hakusan Mountains, it sits at the heart of a land once known as the Peasant’s Kingdom.

It’s here that I stopped into the small Ikko Ikki Historical Museum near the ruins of Torigoe Castle, where a 100-year-long Buddhist theocracy met its end in a bloody last stand.

A federation of mostly peasant warriors bound by a faith in True Pure Land Buddhism, the Ikko Ikki were a unique force that ruled much of Hokuriku during the tumultuous 15th- and 16th-century Warring States period.

Their egalitarian spirit stood in contrast to other powerful feudal fiefdoms of the time, including that of famed Oda Nobunaga, a unifier of Japan who brutally crushed their rebellion. While Nobunaga is celebrated to this day, I couldn’t help feeling it a shame that the warrior monks of the Ikko Ikki and their legacy had been largely forgotten.

After perusing the empty attraction’s detailed battlefield models and historical artifacts, I quizzed the woman at the till, asking if the rebellious spirit of the Ikko Ikki lives on in the community.

“I think that as people become more affluent, their reliance on gods or Buddhas diminishes,” she replied. “Faith seems to be fading because most people don’t experience much hardship anymore.”

But once a year the village remembers. Every August, she tells me, the museum car park transforms into a festival of folk dancing, food, and fireworks. It’s a time to honor their ancestors’ virtue. As night falls, 10,000 candles flicker in a nearby park, a poignant tribute to the peasants’ last stand.

A roadside attraction takes you through hell and back


Photo: Jacob Lewis

While in the area, I decided to swing by another curious roadside attraction I had heard about, called Hanibe Caves, where an enormous bronze Buddha head sits among the sculpture gardens of a former quarry. Promised a touch of the strange, I took a 15-minute bus ride through a narrow mountain pass followed by a 20-minute walk past woods and fallow winter rice fields to a place with the feel of a faded theme park.

Opened in 1951 by a sculptor, the site features numerous Buddha statues dotting the landscape, but the true heart of the Hanibe Caves lies below ground. Before the towering bronze head Buddha statue, less a figure of serenity and more a silent sentinel to some otherworldly realm, I paid my 500 Japanese yen ($3.40) fee to the elderly woman in the ticket booth.

A path wound up past abandoned mining shacks and scattered shrines housing statues of wild animals and deities, leading toward the looming cave mouth. This is where the whimsical facade melts away, and where someone has painstakingly crafted statues that depict the Buddhist hell.


Photo: Jacob Lewis

In the first section of these claustrophobic caverns, I passed art from India, including stone statues of the Kama Sutra. The mood soon turned from erotic to gruesome. Grotesque demons loom over victims in scenes that, while intended as parody, were unsettling in my claustrophobic isolation. One man lay trapped, his grotesquely enlarged penis pinning him to the ground. Another was impaled by a demon on a wheel of spikes. At the exit, a series of saints stood – a promise of redemption, perhaps. Instead, I found the way out blocked by winter snow, forcing me to run the horrifying gauntlet a second time. I could only offer an apologetic nod to those poor, tormented souls as I jogged back toward the light.

The Hanibe Caves’ unsettling spectacle is not the whole story. Missed by many visitors is a worn wooden shack where locals find profound meaning. Halfway up the hill it holds hundreds of small Jizo statues — figures representing miscarried or stillborn children, many of them with fading small toys and trinkets laid at their feet. These Jizo are protectors, meant to guide unborn spirits to a better place. The juxtaposition is jarring — cartoonish visions of hell followed by a place of tender mourning. Both a spectacle for tourists and a holy site of quiet contemplation for others, it left me feeling confused and deeply moved.

Buddhism’s complexities seemed impossible to grasp on a whistle stop train tour, and I left the Hakusan Mountains with far more questions than answers.

Onward to Hokuriku’s hot springs towns


Photo: mTaira/Shutterstock

The next stop along the extended Hokuriku Shinkansen train line was Kaga Onsen, a collection of three historic hot springs towns. At one of these towns, Yamashiro Onsen, I checked into Kai Kaga, a ryokan where time seems to take a gentle pause. Its 400-year-old wooden facade, painted in a traditional “bengara” deep red, hints at the artistry inside.

Ushered inside with bows and warm greetings, my eyes were immediately drawn to a chandelier. Hand crafted from delicate koyori paper threads, it cascaded to the floor in an image of falling snow.

Exchanging my shoes for plush slippers, a subtle invitation to relax, I followed the staff across a small garden bridge. Below flowed a vibrant porcelain tile in the yuzen-nagashi (traditional silk dyeing) motif.

“Dye running from kimonos washed in a mountain stream,” they explained.

My room was full of regional artistry — delicate papercraft, dyed fabrics, and an exquisite Kutani-yaki tea set. A private balcony bath, naturally heated by the hot springs, offered a luxurious touch. Equally inviting, the main hotel onsen, overlooking a tranquil zen garden, was adorned with traditional gold and silver leaf, and ceramic panels depicting seasonal motifs.

Tucked away in the hotel’s oldest building, constructed in the waku-no-uchi style without the use of nails or other fastenings, is the Kintsugi workshop. Here, guests can learn the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold lacquer, transforming flaws into works of art.


Photo: Jacob Lewis

The craft gained a new layer of meaning for me as my visit fell shortly after the Noto Peninsula Earthquake that struck Ishikawa on New Year’s Day 2024. The tradition had just become a powerful symbol of resilience, with heartwarming stories of craftspeople offering free repairs to those affected by the quake.

However, the broken pottery in Kai Kaga, which was far from the epicenter, has a more mundane source: their apparently clumsy guests. Staff member Shino Matsuzaki assured me that they have more than they can repair with 500 broken pieces of the handmade Kutani arriving at the workshop every year.

Instead of some straightforward adhesive job, as I had imagined, I was given the painstaking process of adding a delicate layer of lacquer to a single chipped plate – one small stage in what would be a month-long repair process.

Knowing that my little repair job would one day be worthy of serving food to a guest again felt great, a reminder of the impermanence of things and the beauty found in their restoration.

Bathing in stillness on a bullet train journey


Photo: Enjoy Fukui

The hot springs of Yamashiro Onsen, from which Kai Kaga draws its waters, were supposedly discovered over 1,300 years ago. Legend holds that Gyoki, a famed Buddhist priest of the Nara Period, noticed a wounded crow easing its pain in a pool of water. Intrigued, the monk soon realized the spring’s healing properties.

I had always found the ritual of Japanese onsen bathing to be almost spiritual. Stripping fully nude, meticulously cleaning the body then full immersion in geothermal waters seemed to carry a deeper meaning. In Shinto, Japan’s Indigenous religion, purification through water has profound significance. Buddhism also emphasizes the importance of bathing, and many onsen besides Yamashito are said to have been discovered by monks, their waters often believed to possess magical healing properties.

To gain an insight into the relationship between Buddhism and onsen, I spoke with Chief Priest Takahashi Genpou at Daianzenji Temple, a 17th-century Rinzai Zen temple known for its tranquil atmosphere, meticulous flower gardens, and traditional architecture.

On a mountainside just outside Fukui City, the Zen temple offers guests a chance to experience Zen meditation, calligraphy, and even enjoy a vegetarian shojin ryori (Japanese Buddhist cuisine) meal.


Photo: Hoshino Resorts

In a room overlooking the gardens, the 41-year-old monk shared how his training instilled a lifelong appreciation for water. During his time as a novice, he was only allowed to bathe on days that ended in a four or a nine, using a single bucket of water, and only after giving thanks to Buddha.

“Bathing is not to be taken for granted,” he advises. “The act reminds us that everyday life isn’t guaranteed. It’s about recognizing the value of the mundane and facing oneself, both mentally and emotionally — a place for self-reflection and gratitude.”

This philosophy resonated as I visited Ko-Soyu, located opposite Kai Kaga ryokan in Yamashiro Onsen’s main square. This authentic replica of a Meiji-era wooden bathhouse was recently rebuilt using materials and techniques from 150 years ago. Since it has no showers, I followed instructions and scrubbed myself clean in my room before donning my hotel yukata (casual summer kimono) and walking to the bathhouse.

A soothing aroma of wet cypress wood greeted me while hand-crafted tiles from nearby Kutaniyaki felt cool underfoot.

As I eased into the 45-degree water, stained glass painted the steam in blues, yellows, and reds — a vibrant echo of the technicolor temple rave in Fukui.

Acclimating to the heat, my mind raced with thoughts — work, responsibilities, everyday anxieties. It was far from the perfect stillness of Zen, but perhaps that was the point. In the awareness of my breath, of the warmth of the water, was a “place for self-reflection and gratitude.”

Discover Matador

Save Bookmark

We use cookies for analytics tracking and advertising from our partners.

For more information read our privacy policy.