Since I'm a noob myself and I always wanted to try this type of meditation I was wondering if there are temples in Kyoto where I can experiment zazen in a friendly-and-noob-proof environment where even the more ungraceful tourist is welcome.
There are several temples in the Kyoto area as well as Osaka which allow you to do this. However, not everyone every day. So you should check one of the several different lists of temples (one, two, three) offering anything between overnight stays, vegetarian food, copying sutras with a brush pen (which cleanses your mind), zazen meditation, lectures etc. Some open only on special days, some meditate in the early morning, some later in the day, some only allow women. So some study will be required on your side before you show up somewhere. In any case, I would ask your hotel to help you reserve a place. While the lecture might be in English, the person answering the phone might not speak it.
But Zen is not equal zen. There are three main schools of Zen in Japan, and each temple has it's own variations and sub-types of the schools.
- Rinzai is focusing on the insight into one's true nature.
- Soto focuses on meditation with no objects, anchors, or content. The meditator strives to be aware of the stream of thoughts, allowing them to arise and pass away without interference.
- Obaku is today very similar to Rinzai, but they have several smaller differences, for example they chant in Chinese.
The most noteworthy temples
First of all to mention is the Nanzen-Ji because they have many different types of meetings for Zazen, some of them free, some you get some food so you have to pay. It is also the headquarter of the Nanzen-ji branch of Rinzai Zen Buddhism (one of the big 3) and exists already since 1291. The website of the temple does not show English language information, but you can see the google translated version. I read on another page that they offer English help though.
The second one I want to highlight is the Kennin-ji Temple, since it's the oldest zen temple in Japan and considered one of the five most important Zen temples of Kyoto. while Soto Zen is said to have originated from here since its founder studied here, this temple is today one of the headquarters of the Rinzai-zen school. They not only let you participate in early morning zazen, but also give you a zen lecture afterwards. They also have some really famous artwork to be seen:
The third school of zen (Obaku) can be experienced at it's head temple Obakusan Manpuku - ji. Since this temple is unchanged since it's creation you can see very well preserved Chinese style architecture. This temple does not make you get up at 5am for meditation, but they allow it only on Thursday afternoons.
Another noteworthy one from a tourism perspective is Shokoku-ji, since it's the same school as the Gin/Kinkakuji temples. They offer Zazen every second Sunday at 9am.
many other places offer a full 2-days one night accommodation, such as the tekishin.
Myoren-ji has a special hall for the Zazen, and serve more complete offering with tea, lecture, breakfast and zazen.
Another thing you might want to try is the famous vegetarian cuisine at the Torin-in temple.
Rinzai and Soto zen temples should have a weekly zazenkai that is open to the public. It should be free, but donations are accepted (and probably expected, but I never gave more than a few hundred yen a time)
Most of them probably are in Japanese only, though.
If you have the time, another option might be to stay one (or a few) nights in a temple in Kouya-san (1.5h train ride from Osaka). It's quite beautiful and definitely worth visiting. Many temples there offer lodging, and joining the monks in their morning meditation is usually a part of that (optional). But since it's the origin and headquarters of Shingon Buddhism, I'm not sure if it's the kind of medidation you're looking for.