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 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!

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.

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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.

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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?

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Serene Sanctuary: Zen Buddhist Temple Lodgings


“It is better to travel well than to arrive.” ~ Buddha

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Zen Meditation Room

Zen Meditation Room

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, zen meditation whipped green tea and sweetsIf you’re looking for an exceptionally relaxing and uniquely Japanese treat, it doesn’t get much more Zen than this delightfully tranquil shukubo (“temple lodging”) at Shunkō-in Temple, located within the Myōshin-ji temple complex in northwest Kyoto. The temple’s relatively new dormitory offers exaggeratedly (and purposely) simplistic rooms, but which also offer modern comforts, including free Wi-Fi and a shared, well-equipped kitchen and spacious dining area. The real draw here, however, is the calm and quiet of the grounds and surrounding areas, combined with the chance to take part in Buddhist temple-based Zen meditation along with a nearly private temple tour, both of the latter under the guidance of Shunkō-in’s English-speaking vice abbot, the Rev. Kawakami.

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Buddhist temple wooden roofline

Shunkō-in not only offers visitors an opportunity to learn about Zen Buddhism, but also a chance to see treasured religious articles up close and personal, representative of important epochs in Japanese history. We also used our stay here to reset ourselves into the northwest of the city from the Gion area, and from here we were easily able to enjoy nearby UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the Golden Pavilion, Ryoanji Temple, and Ninnaji Temple!

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, sacred decorative stone

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, stone tiles and design 2Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, sacred everygreen pine at night 2We stayed at Shunkō-in Temple during the low winter season in late January and early February of 2014. While the larger Myōshin-ji temple complex is only about 8 minutes from the local Hanazono train station (easily reached from Kyoto station), it is at least that much more time to get to Shunkō-in from Myōshin-ji’s southern entrance, and that’s only if you know where you are going! We elected to arrive via taxi as it was raining the morning of our arrival, although it appears taxis cannot enter the Myōshin-ji compound, so we still did manage to end up damp wandering our way along. I’m not admitting we didn’t know where we were going, but remember: not everyone who wanders is lost!

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, closed wooden gate lighted at night

Shunkō-in (春光院, “Temple of the Ray of Spring Light”) is a Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto belonging to the “Temple of Excellent Mind,” the largest among the various Japanese Buddhist traditions. The temple was established in 1590 and houses important historical objects that reflect the multifaceted religious and artistic atmosphere in Japan from the sixteenth century onward.

 

The Bell of Nanban-ji

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, 16th century church bell IHS

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, 16th century church bell (holga)The Bell of Nanban-ji is a Jesuit bell made in Portugal in 1577 and used in Nanban-ji, the first Christian Church in Kyoto established in 1576. For the next eleven years, Nanban-ji was the center of Catholic missionary activities in Japan, and also served as an important gathering place for traders from Portugal and Spain.

The church was purposely destroyed by fire in 1587 after Christian persecution was sanctioned in Japan, and was never rebuilt. The Bell made its way to Shunkō-in around 1800, but during World War II, the grandfather of the present vice-abbot buried the bell in the temple gardens to prevent it from being melted down in support of the Japanese imperial war effort. The bell helps illuminate the deep history of Christianity in Japan during the 16th century and about the political and economic relationships between Japan and Europe. The bell is designated as a “National Important Cultural Property.”

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, 16th century Christian church bell (impact)The Jesuit seal containing a Christogram “IHS” can be found on the surface of the bell. “IHS” is derived from the first three letters of the Greek name of Jesus, ΙΗΣ (Jesus is ΙΗΣΟΎΣ in Greek), and is also connected with the Latin phrase, “Iesus Hominum Salvator,” or “Jesus, Savior of Man.” Under this three nails on the Seal of the Society of Jesus can be found, symbolizing the Crucifixion of Christ.

The Myōshin-ji complex is made up of multiple towering temples scattered throughout its vicinities, and is the biggest temple complex in Kyoto. Thus, the entire area allows one to enjoy peace and silence even being surrounded by the city’s dense urban sprawl. Walking the grounds, you will see students, locals, and Buddhist monks roving about or passing through. What you won’t see, however (and thankfully so) are foreign tourists! The Shunkō-in Temple itself is picture perfect. Passing through its handsome wooden gates, one quickly feels anointed with the tranquility and peace the surroundings seem to almost impose.

 

Kirishitan Lantern (Hidden Christian Lantern)

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, hidden Christian symbols (temple lantern)kirishitanShunkō-in houses an Asian stone lantern called a kirishitan dōrō (“Christian lantern”), whose leg is in the vague shape of a cross, and carved into its surface one finds what could be interrupted as an effigy of the Virgin Mary. While the distinctive history of this particular lantern has been lost to antiquity, this lantern remains a very important object which speaks much about early Christianity in Japan

Christianity was introduced to Japan by St. Francis Xavier on August 15, 1549, and initially was accepted by many feudal lords and farmers in western Japan. However, Christianity came to be viewed as a serious threat to Japan, leading to its outright ban in 1614.

The Edo period (1603-1867) within Japan was the dark ages for Japanese Christians. Christianity was banned, and Christians and their icons and property were systematically eliminated and destroyed. However, as is always the case in at any time for all religions, some Christians decided to keep their faith and actively starting to hide their religious identity. Those hidden Christians made their crosses and graves to resemble the Buddhist statues, pagodas, and stone lanterns, like that found at Shunkō-in. In 1858, the ban against Christianity was finally lifted by the newly-born Meiji government of more modern times.

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, idle Japanese straw brooms

Although check-in times at Shunkō-in are stressed, you can arrange to drop luggage off early. On our arrival to do just that, we were told our room was already ready and available. There are some basic forms to fill out, and you’ll need to provide your passport for a short time, and the room must be pre-paid. The English-speaking staff there provides a wide variety of information, and has the gouge on local places to eat, tourist sites and other area-related information.

Free loaner bikes are a WONDERFUL way to get around

Free loaner bikes are a WONDERFUL way to get around

 

Painted Sliding Door Panels (fusuma-e) by Eigaku Kanō

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Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, classic Japanese wall paintingsKyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, classic Japanese wall paintings 4Several sliding door panels at Shunkō-in were painted by Eigaku Kanō, and have Confucian teachings as their theme. Confucianism and its stress on honor, loyalty and honesty were very important to samurai (warriors) during Japan’s Edo period. The wonderful thing about viewing these panels here at the temple during a private tour is that not only are they original (most other painted sliding door panels are reproductions in other major temple attractions), but they can be viewed up close and personal, from a seated position on the tatami mats, with only natural light, all exactly the way the panels were designed and painted for viewing! Similarly, the gardens are viewed the same way – as originally intended from seated positions in the center of the main rooms adjoining the green spaces.

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, Jody in a Temple room

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, Buddhist cemetery at the temple (holga)Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, Buddhist cemetery at nightShunkō-in Temple’s guest house is named Tetsuryu-Kutsu, or, “Cave of Enlightened Dragon.” Fortunately, although we failed to encounter any Far Eastern dragons of ancient lore, we did however feel a bit more enlightened after our stay and meditation experience. There is only one type of room offered at the Temple (although there are 8 total), and that type is SIMPLE! The rooms are located on two floors, all on the same side of a long corridor, with windows that overlook an old Buddhist cemetery…which some people may find a bit creepy. I, however, took advantage of the surreal scenery of this garden of wood and stone in the darkness and rain for some very nice photos.

Simple Sleeping Arrangements

Simple Sleeping Arrangements

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, tranquil wooden raised passagesKyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, Temple Priestly Priest accoutrementsThe air-conditioned/heated en suite room is a 14.6-square-meter bedroom, completely covered with traditional tatami, with sleeping futons on the floor already made (the room could easily sleep three adults). The shower was clean and well-appointed, with the toilet, like most places in Japan, being in a completely separate room.

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Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, twin beds Japanese styleKyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, alter statue and offeringsAnother novelty unique to Shunkō-in is the room pillows. Small and dense, they were filled with what we found out to be small sections of hearty plastic straws or tubes. In effect, these small pillows molded almost perfectly to our necks and heads, and were oddly very comfortable. Although I’m sure the sparse room fittings and floor-centric basic bedding was in part to add to the unique humbling experience of Zen Buddhism, Jody and I both agree that sleep here was some of the deepest, restful sleep either of us have experienced in a long, long time! Hard to image that such bliss came from sleeping on the floor in the middle of winter.

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, zen meditation zen master station

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, bicycle riding with Jody to get Chinese food in Kyoto

Wonderful Wonder Cafe

Wonderful Wonder Cafe

Food is not served at the temple, but there are several cafes and eateries nearby that are easily found based on a map provided with your stay. A not to miss treat is the Wonder Café, just a 10 minute walk or so from Shunkō-in. Here you will be wonderfully entertained with the dense and eclectic surroundings, generous portions of pasta dishes, and a simply one-of-a-kind bathroom that’s not to be missed (along with the rest of the entire 2nd floor!). A fun late-trip for a truly unique Chinese-food snack-attack is via the loaner bicycles found at the temple, and the associated downhill race towards the train station and “OHSHO,” serving fabulous food 24/7 and always packed with satisfied customers.

Make sure to get the map!

Make sure to get the map!

Do yourself a favor and stay local and authentic. Between our Machiya stay earlier in the week (see that blog here) and this reinvigorating – if not enlightening experience, we were able to get a much more grounded experience of what Kyoto has to offer at its best: charm, nostalgia, history, all bonded by the more comfortable elements of modernity.

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Shunkō-in Temple is Trip-Advisor ranked #11 of 227 Specialty lodgings in Kyoto. Specifics about staying at Shunkō-in can be found here http://www.shunkoin.com/ and below:

• Room Rates: 1 person @ 6,000 yen/night; 2 people @ 5,500 yen/person/night; 3 people @ 4,500 yen/person/night. Prices include sales tax (which may have recently gone up – check for current prices!!)

• Check-in 15:30 – 18:30 FIRM, and Check-out 11:00

• No curfew: after check-in guests have 24/7 access to the temple and lodge

• Zen meditation class and tour for staying guests: 500 yen/person

• Free bicycle rental

Address: 42 Myoshinji-Cho, Hanazono, Ukyo-Ku, Kyoto 616-8035 JAPAN

Phone: +81.75.462.5488 (international), (075)462-5488 (domestic)

Email:   Rev.Taka.Kawakami@gmail.com