Shukubo: Sacred Stay atop Mt. Koyasan

“The temple bell stops but I still hear the sound coming out of the flowers.”  ~Matsuo Basho, 17th century Japanese philosopher and poet

Entering Through Our Temple's Gate

Entering Through Our Temple’s Gate

“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.

Quiet and Peaceful Accommodations

Quiet and Peaceful Accommodations

28253113885_da4d5c10c8_bShukubo 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.

Corner Suite, Sun-lit Passages, Garden View

Corner Suite, Sun-lit Passages, Garden View

28149079872_44610a4d08_bHistorically, 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.

Warm and Comfy Private Facilities

Warm and Comfy Private Facilities

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.

Futons on Tatami are Incredibly Comfortable!

Futons on Tatami are Incredibly Comfortable!

28253136925_eacb41890e_bTemple 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.

Living and Dining Area

Living and Dining Area

28253131585_92b4003563_bThe temple we selected (“Sojiin,” booked through 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!

Jody Enjoying our Temple's Zen Garden from our Suite

Jody Enjoying our Temple’s Zen Garden from our Suite

28253133865_57d70b9bc8_bJapanese 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.

Meals Served Privately over 90 Minutes and Many Courses!

Meals Served Privately over 90 Minutes and Many Courses!

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.

Kevin and an Early Dinner

Kevin and an Early Dinner

27972082880_40392c3e9f_bGuests 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.

Suite's Sitting Area

Suite’s Sitting Area

28149071702_f7d029f616_bThen 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!

Vegetarian Meals

Vegetarian Meals

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.

Gates Closed at 2200

Gates Closed at 2200

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?


Floating Torii of Miyajima

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, Kevin for scale of the floating torii's base at low tide WM

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, Jody seated at the shrine dock's edge (floating Torii) WMStanding at the base of perhaps the most iconic torii in all of Asia, it’s easy to feel the divine dimension which seems to emanate from each and every wooden fiber. The Great Torii (Otorii) of Itsukushima, a Shinto Shrine on the island of Miyajima, like all torii (see Trampled Torii for more), marks the boundary of sacred ground, a physical reminder of the split between the spirit and the human worlds. It also remains as the ceremonial shrine entrance for souls of the departed and the still living alike.

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, Torii Gate through a boardwalk holga WM

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, self-portrait at O-Torii GateThe first Otorii at this location was erected in 1168, a little more than 200 meters offshore. Since then, the gate has continually served the larger shrine, although the one we see today dates to a reconstruction of 1875, itself the eight Otorii in the shrine’s long history. Eight rebuilds are not too shabby for 950 years of sitting in the ocean exposed to the elements!

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, flirting with the floating Torii WM

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, peaceful day on the waterfront WM

Miyajima 2015, Mount Misen, view of the Floating Torii from the rail up the mountain 2 WMThe Otorii is about 55 feet in height, about 80 feet in length at the arch, and weighs a whopping 60 tons. The main pillars are natural camphor, approximately 500 to 600 years old, a tree type known to be resistant to rot and insects. The smaller supporting pillars are natural cedar. The arch has a roof made of cypress bark thatching. Architecturally, today’s design dates back to 1547, and consists of four smaller torii supporting the larger in the style of medieval Ryōbu Shintō (“dual Shinto”), a mix of esoteric Buddhist and Shinto religions.

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, Jody and the floating torii 2

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, solitary view of the floating torii 2 WMArguably, the best time to view the Otorii is during high tide, although one must consider lighting as well. When the waters are high, the gate can appear to float dramatically on or over the sea. At dusk the arch can sometimes be beautifully contrasted against the golden skies of the setting sun and distant mountain ranges. During low tide, the waters recede enough to make a relatively dry trek to the Otorii’s base. While the pictures may not be as beautiful, seeing the gate up close and personal is something to behold. The structure is truly a massive one!

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, solitary floating torii WM

Shot in the Rain

Shot in the Rain

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, large brass chinese latern at dock's edge WMCruises around Otorii can be hired at the Miyajima ferry terminal at night when the gate is illuminated by powerful lights along the shore. And, if you’re lucky enough to catch a high tide, the boat will even pass under and through the gate!

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, Jody with the floating torii in the rain

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, Jody seated at the shrine dock's edge (floating Torii) WMThe structure itself is not sunk or otherwise secured below the seabed, but stands in place strictly under its own substantial weight. Even though, the Great Torii seems all but impervious to the best that Mother Nature can throw at it: it has survived, with little or no damage, storms, typhoons, and even earthquakes.

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, night torii in the rain WM

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, arched Torii WMMiyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, floating tour gate WM

How is this possible? As an engineer, I found this design rather intriguing…if not unlikely. But if you think back 950 years, the technology and tools necessary to build an under-ocean foundation just didn’t exist. Rather, the architect’s strategy focuses on weight that creates pressure, and on wooden joints that offset any potentially destructive forces encountered by absorbing vibration and small displacements of the gate’s various components.

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, Selfie in the Rain at O-Torii Grand Torii Gate

Self-Timer, Tripod Portrait, Shot in the Rain!

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, floating torii WMThe Gate stands on two main and four minor pillars, where the smaller supports act to buttress the larger, giving the structure stability in two dimensions. Its weight acts in the third. Although the pillars themselves are the bases of truly massive trees, another seven tons of weight is added topside by filling the boxed structure below the upper arch with a slew of fist-sized stones that ensure the upper structure stays firmly in place. Then the entire structure is held together by wooden wedges, which absorb motion without unbalancing or otherwise damaging the Torii.

View from the base of Mount Misen

View from the base of Mount Misen


Miayjima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, glowing floating torii at night WM

The vermilion color of Shinto Shrines and torii across Japan is believed to help ward off malevolent specters. The lacquer which carries the color also offers some protection from rot and decay, since most torii remain constructed of wood. The sun and the moon are painted on the east and the west (respectively) of the Otorii roof, as implored by Feng Shui in an effort to help further block demons.

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, tidal boardwalks WM

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, chinese lantern and floating torii WMThe theatrical Otorii of Itsukushima Shrine and Miyajima island is one of Japan’s most popular tourist attractions for good reason, and is no doubt the most recognizable and celebrated feature for most any visitor. As one of three officially designated most scenic views in all of Japan, it is one not to be missed!

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, torii gate to the shrine WM

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, shooting the floating Torii WM

For more information on the Otorii and Miyajima Island, please see:

Day trips from Hiroshima are easily accomplished. Direct two-way ferry service operates between Miyajima and Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park.

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, floating Torii through the shrine WM