“The temple bell stops but I still hear the sound coming out of the flowers.” ~Matsuo Basho, 17th century Japanese philosopher and poet
“Here is our drink menu,” our apprentice monk says as he prepares one of our suite’s tatami rooms for our first vegetarian shojin ryori (vegetarian) dinner. Picking out a nice white Riesling, Jody and I are quite surprised since we are sitting in the middle of a practicing Buddhist temple atop Mount Koyasan, one of Buddhism’s most sacred sites in all of Japan. In fact, it is the very place where Buddhism took hold many centuries ago in this island nation. The monks here, in progressive and pragmatic fashion, simply don’s take offense at the idea of alcohol. After all, as they say, they are not the ones partaking! And like I say, “what would Jesus drink,” right? Many sects of Buddhism in Japan are not anything like your Mamma’s Southern Baptist Church, Catholic Cathedral, or Jewish Synagogue. And that’s exactly why this temple will serve as our luxury hotel accommodations for the next three nights.
Shukubo is a type of accommodation in Japan that is actually part of a working Japanese temple or shrine. But it’s really so much more than that. Shukubo is about capturing the tranquility and the beauty of Japan, which in large part emanates from that country’s legendary spiritual culture and zen-like harmony. A temple stay can help calm your body and mind, where Japanese rock garden can be peacefully and privately contemplated, and where healthy yet extravagant vegetarian dishes are served privately in your room by resident monks.
Historically, this type of lodging was offered only for worshippers, especially those on pilgrimage. Today however the clientele have expanded and the temples and shrines have become well-accustomed to foreigners of all flavors. Koyasan is perhaps one of the best places in Japan to experience a night at a temple, with something in excess of 50 of the 117 temples found there serving as shukubo. But be careful though; the accommodations run the gamut from in expensive hostel-like digs to high-end ryokan (see Live Fishbowl Prime: Gourmet Food at a Japanese Ryokan for more), and the staff there may not be proficient in your language, or even English. Reservations can be made online if you are careful; the typical cost for a stay starts at around $100, although there are cheaper and MUCH more expensive rates. Those with private bathroom facilities, which only a few offer, can climb up in excess of $300 a night, with luxury accommodations costing even more. Note that like for the rest of Japan, these rates are quoted “per person, per night.” Most stays include dinner and breakfast, some served privately while others serving family style in a common area. Many accept credit card, although be sure to check as some still operate on a cash-only basis, although this is becoming more and more rare in Japan.
The wooden temple structures, sparse décor, and tatami covered rooms all promote a warmth of form and function which focuses your energy not on things, but on the moment. The courtyard gardens of sand, rock and foliage, viewed from the rooms’ long, narrow corridors, dictate the essence of a deep spiritual harmony with nature. And the floor-centric culture found throughout Japan literally grounds one with Mother Earth, resulting in a renewed perspective and one of the most fabulous nights of sleep, EVER.
Temple lodgings typically offer private, traditional Japanese style rooms with tatami floors, paper-covered sliding doors (fusuma) and shared or communal toilets and sinks. There actually are very few temple stays in Koyasan that offer en suite washrooms. Thick futons and rice or pellet-filled pillows are spread on the tatami floor in the evening after dinner, repurposing the room’s dining and living room into your bedroom for the night. There is sparse furniture, if any. Some shukubo have typical Japanese air conditioning and heat provided in each room by remote control; other more basic accommodations utilize gas heaters in cooler weather and offer no cooling other than a portable dehumidifier during other seasons.
The temple we selected (“Sojiin,” booked through Booking.com) went far beyond these average standards, and instead offered facilities more aligned with nicer ryokans, complete with private a private washroom, soaking tub, and lavishly prepared and presented meals in our suite that probably approached the size of smaller houses in Japan. The Japanese measure rooms by the number of tatami mats, and our living/dining room was 12, and our bedroom area was 8. Since we had a corner suite with long corridors on two sides overlooking the gardens, add another 16. Then there was our closet/kitchenette area, separate toilet, sink basin, and washroom (waterproof room with shower and soaking tub), say another 4 mats. Converting 34 mats into square feet returns a value of roughly 700!
Japanese Buddhist temples serve a kind of vegetarian cuisine called shojin ryori. This is a cuisine completely free of fish, meat, and many of the stronger spices, like garlic or certain onions. Our monk explained it all this way: true Buddhists do not eat any animal or animal product from life that is sentient – the ability to feel or perceive and respond to sensations of any kind. Monks, however, can eat meats and fish if offered to them. At shukubo, many small delicately prepared and visually stunning dishes served over a number of courses that span sometimes well over an hour, and are thought to be the very origin of Japanese food which has become so popular. Prepared by the right chef, the meals can be quite delicious, but certainly are different for most Westerners.
Since Shukubo accommodations are an integral part of working temples and shrines, guests are usually required to follow a certain decorum, or even some house rules. While some have curfew hours (usually around 0600-2200), others do not. But they all will have quiet hours, and respect is required at all times throughout the complex. However, since ancient times, Buddhist Temples and to a lesser extent Shinto Shrines have been accepting of many peoples while offering little or no judgment. Regardless of your country of origin or religion of choice, as long as you can respect the religion of others, you remain welcomed at shukubo.
Guests are also invited to participate in morning prayers, which typically begin promptly at 6:00am. Go at least once to soak in the timeless traditions of esoteric Buddhism of harmonic chanting, rhythmic gongs, and the thick fragrance of incense permeating the air. The ceremonies last about 30-45 minutes and are followed by breakfast around thirty minutes later. During your stay, ask for a formal tour of the temple grounds: each temple has its own unique cultural treasures, painted screens and Zen garden that the staff will happily share with you.
Then there is zazen. Not every shukubo offers a zazen experience, but it’s worthwhile to find one which does (see Temple Transcendence: Zen Meditation in Kyoto for our experience). Sitting still, eyes closed, attempting to empty your mind in phase with the mesmerizing chants, you can begin to feel that the very essence of time slows and moves around you rather than through you as it so harshly does in our normally overly hectic lives. Zazen provides much-needed escape, a way to break from the inertia of everyday life, stilling forces which normally compel frenzied thought and chaotic motion throughout the day. In fact, after just fifteen or thirty minutes of focused, controlled breathing, a measure of tranquility can be felt. It is said that the more demanding a person’s life is or the more cluttered someone’s mind may be, the more relief which may be realized. Take this opportunity to refresh and revitalize yourself!
But why so many shukubo here in Koyasan? The mountain top serves sometimes as the beginning, but almost always the end of an important pilgrimage for spiritual Japanese (see Mt. Koya: A Pilgrimage of “Eat, Pray, Bathe” for more). And all those pilgrims need places to stay and eat during their spiritual quests. Further, more and more tourists flock to this area of Japan just a short train ride outside of Osaka since it has been added to the UNESCO World Heritage List, in large part due to the important and expansive temples and famous cemetery located here, along with ancient cedar forests, historic gates, local restaurants, quaint cafes and of course discount souvenir shops.
With a town population of only about 3,000, Koyasan stands at the very genesis of Shingon Buddhism, a Chinese-influenced esoteric philosophical interpretation of Buddha introduced to Japan in the year 805 by a man named Kobo Daishi, one of Japan’s most revered religious figures, who’s mausoleum is also found here. Kongobuji Temple in the town serves as the headquarters for this sect, which has more than 4,000 temples and missions throughout the world.
The foot of Mt. Koyasan can easily be reached by train from Osaka station or Kansai airport with one switch. Your fare will include a final funicular ride up the steep mountainside (the Japanese refer to this mode of travel as “cable car”), where a bus can be taken to the stop nearest your shukubo.
And be sure to clink together a couple of glasses of wine during your stay; the monks will happily oblige, and besides, what would Jesus drink, right?