Perched on a ridge in northern Awaji Island in Hyogo Prefecture is Zenbo Seinei, a Zen retreat and wellness facility open to those who want to refresh their minds and regain balance in their busy lives. Designed by the winner of the Pritzker Prizeーthe most prestigious annual architecture prizeーarchitect Shigeru Ban, the building’s impressive figure emerges from the island’s abundant nature as though it was a natural element of the flourishing landscape, offering visitors a one-of-a-kind getaway filled with Zen spirit, meditation sessions, and healthy cuisine.

Soak in the Peaceful Atmosphere of a Floating Zen Space Celebrating Timber and Natural Views

Glimpses of the building gradually spread before my eyes as I reached the approach to Zenbo Seinei. It was the silhouette of the roof at first, then the ultra narrow frame of its facade, and finally the long pillars that make it look as though the building is floating effortlessly in the sky. Not claiming any more space than the minimum needed from the surrounding forest, Zenbo Seinei is set back from the road and is not easily visible, forming a seamless blend with nature making for an unforgettable first impression.

The site area expands over 3,000 m², of which 1,000 m² are occupied by the building itself. Perfectly aligned to the 135th meridian east, which is used to establish Japan Standard Time, Zenbo Seinei stretches over 90 meters in a strikingly elongated geometric form only 7.2 meters wide. A 100-meter-long open-air meditation platform crowns the structure, giving guests 360-degree views of the surrounding wilderness.

Experience a Harmonious Wellness Getaway Designed by Renowned Architect Shigeru Ban

Aiming to provide visitors in search of a lifestyle that values physical and mental well-being with a well-rounded Zen experience, Zenbo Seinei accommodates meditation, healthy food, and profound rest all under one roof, thoughtfully blending mindfulness and Zen philosophy to cultivate contentment. This blend is also found in the facility’s name, which I learnt upon my arrival. The kanji characters chosen for Zenbo Seinei mean “zen” and “monk’s dwelling,” followed by the Japanese word for “peace and quiet,” conveying the idea of a contemplative escape reminiscent of Japan’s traditional temple stays.

The architect who designed Zenbo Seinei, Pritzker Prize-winning Shigeru Ban, wanted to create an accommodation facility where visitors could experience Zen in a space abundant in nature. Living a life saturated with the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, I eagerly awaited trying this philosophy for myself as I stepped in. Immersed in a space where I was able to focus on introspection, my introduction to Zenbo Seinei was all about savoring the calm radiating from the warm wooden corridors and light-filled rooms of cedar, cypress, and paper.

Shigeru Ban, who is known for his humanitarian efforts and innovative use of recyclable materials to quickly and efficiently house disaster victims, has many of his most notable works taking the shape of eco-friendly temporary structures. Attracted to a model of architecture that produces as little waste as possible, Shigeru Ban shaped a project rooted in his sustainable approach by using domestically-sourced natural materials while calculating the structure’s height so as to not tower over the ridgeline created by the surrounding greenery. The simplicity of such thoughtful precautions left me in awe while I admired how gently the dynamic figure of Zenbo Seinei connected with the environment without overpowering it.

Embrace Simplicity and Stay in Rooms That Combine Zen Philosophy and Mindfulness

The same philosophy was applied to the interiors, where I was welcomed by minimalist linework and panoramic windows that let nature shine. Zenbo Seinei’s design and absence of decorations brings Awaji’s verdant scenery indoors by framing portions of forest with skillfully realized latticework, ensuring that no guest room nor communal space lacks in soothing views.

The more I ventured in, the greater the tranquil ambience became, as I relished the coexistence of modest yet curated details that put my soul at ease. The guest rooms were a fine example of this. There are 18 in total, all carefully designed to encourage meditative practices. Guests can choose between single rooms, double rooms, and large single rooms all between 1.5 and 3 tatami mats in size (2.5 – 5 m²). These small, cozy sizes are based on the traditional idea of “shukubo” (temple stay), where you sleep on one single tatami mat and appreciate the satisfaction derived from simplicity.

Although still restrained, higher-than-usual ceilings and large openings flood the interiors with natural light, emanating an unparalleled sense of openness. As excess embellishment is avoided, the focus remains on the wild scenery outside. Rooms are meant to be essential spaces where unnecessary burdens as well as superfluous frills useless in personal fulfillment are left behind, and it’s no coincidence that they are each named after Zen teachings and sayings reminding me of important life values.

My favorite was “ichi go ichi e” or “one time, one encounter.” This is the concept of treasuring the unrepeatable nature of a moment, which is relevant in many Japanese Zen practices such as tea ceremony.

With the Zen Stay Plan, over the course of two days, guests can detox while unwinding in their room and spacious lounge, immerse themselves in contemplative moments through reading in the salon and book corner, as well as experience “senshin” mind purification in the facility’s shower room.

During the stay, various Zen activities can be enjoyed from morning to night. The day often starts with refreshing yoga classes followed by a selection of Zen workshops designed to appreciate Japanese tea ceremony and hospitality or benefit from the calming effects of Japanese calligraphy and incense. Breathing exercises and introspective meditation sessions are also practiced before sleep to encourage profound rest.

Practice Self-Reflection While Taking in the Beauty and Benefits of Awaji’s Nature

Awaji’s fresh air cleared my lungs as soon as I stepped out onto the panoramic observation deck at the top floor. The cloudy sky gleamed with a sense of peaceful stillnessー perfect for the well-being session I was about to embark onーas I took my seat on the specially crafted “zazen” meditation chairs so that I could meditate in comfort and still maintain the correct posture.

As Bilal, my meditation instructor, shared with me, there is profound relaxation in meditating in open nature, and I couldn’t agree more! He particularly loves rainy days, as rain casts a veil of mysterious serenity over Zenbo Seinei. He thinks that different weather conditions allow one to fully take in the vast beauty of Awaji and enjoy the various sounds of nature, ranging from chirping birds to crackling wind. It was easy to close my eyes and imagine the scenery changing magnificently through the seasons; starlit at night, then shining in sunlight on warmer days. Following the flow of my breath as I was taught, I sank deeper into those thoughts and slowly felt my body and soul being filled with life and energy!

Like me, guests can also opt for the Day Trip Plan and enlighten their spirit with Zen by spending hours of mindfulness at Zenbo Seinei. With this plan, overnight stay is not included, but you can take advantage of the facility’s best activities and find time for yourself while practicing guided yoga, meditation, breathing exercises, and other seasonal events for a complete Zen experience.

You can take part in sessions of tea ceremony where you’ll get to whisk your own bowl of matcha green tea and absorb elements of Japanese culture bound to enrich your trip. Later, you can try your hand at sutra copying and find peace one stroke after the other. “Kodo,” or the Japanese “way of fragrance,” can also be experienced here by involving guests in the appreciation of incense to sharpen their senses and ease their hearts.

Two time slots are available for the Day Plan. Guests can choose to enjoy Zenbo Seinei either by day with the Zen Wellness Program from 10:30 am to 3:00 pm, or admire the building and surrounding scenery at sunset from 2:30 pm to 6:30 pm with the Sunset Plan x Zen Wellness Program.

Balance Your Mind and Body With Cuisine Incorporating the Spirit of Zen

As Zenbo Seinei promotes well-being in many different ways, both the Stay Plan and Day Trip Plan are enriched by their original cuisine “zenbo ryori”. Plant-based and avoiding the use of flour, sugar, oil, and dairy products, zenbo ryori is a style of cuisine that might remind some of “shojin ryori” (traditional Buddhist cooking). However, this rendition aims to further elevate the Zen culinary experience with dishes that are gentle on the body and easy to digest, like their signature tofu, which is handmade daily by Zenbo Seinei’s chefs.

Inspired by the four seasons of Awaji Island, zenbo ryori brings the colors of local vegetables and ingredients to the table. As chefs carefully select fermented condiments such as mirin, soy sauce, and miso that are rooted in Japanese tradition and known for their health benefits, these natural flavors are beautifully enhanced.

These nutritious condiments, which are sure to add depth to your diet, are meticulously prepared over the course of one to three years and then utilized under the attentive guidance of expert chef Fushiki Nobuaki, who specializes in Japanese fermented cuisine. Deeply engaged in the preservation of Japan’s fermented culinary culture, Nobuaki is also a lecturer in classes about fermentation and is one of the leading figures behind the rediscovery and popularity of fermented food in Japan.

Arriving at Zenbo Seinei directly from a local brewery to ensure continuous, high-quality fermentation, I was thoroughly impressed by the rigorous attention to detail and pursuit of quality found in these ingredients. A meal here is a true treat for both the eye and palate as well as a delicious way to rebalance your body and mind!

Enjoy True Moments of Mindfulness at Zenbo Seinei

Experience a Zen retreat like no other at Zenbo Seinei. Peacefully embraced by Awaji Island’s thriving greenery, this wellness center and architectural masterpiece will help you detox from the frenzy of everyday life by providing a unique healing experience imbued with Zen spirit.