On a beautiful mountain top in Japan’s Wakayama Prefecture, Koyasan, is a buddhist community that allows travelers a once in a lifetime experience shukubo (temple lodging) in Mount Kōya. This is a must-do for anyone that wants to venture off the beaten path and immerse themselves in a spiritual Japanese retreat. Temple lodging here has become increasingly popular over the years, especially after being added as a sacred site by UNESCO World Heritage. The town, which is filled with hundreds of temples, shrines and monasteries, is completely secluded, allowing you to get away from the overcrowded tourist spots in the rest of Japan. When I heard about the temple lodging on Mount Kōya, I knew this was something that I wanted to experience, so I signed myself up for a night in one of the temples.
It was a bit of an adventure to get to, since it is secluded at the top of the mountain. It took about 2 hours since there’s no direct route. In order to get to Mount Kōya, you will need to take the Nankai Electric Railway to the last stop and then transfer to the Kōya Cable Car, which gets you to the top. Once I arrived, I took a 10 minute bus ride that dropped me off in front of the temple I was staying in.
I didn’t know what to expect. To be honest, I thought I was arriving to a sacred mountain top, that had only a few temples in the area that allowed people to stay in. However, it was a bit more touristy than I expected. Don’t get me wrong, it is still a small, quiet buddhist town but upon arrival, I realized that hotels were basically replaced with these temple lodges. As I was on the bus, people were hopping off at each stop, to check into their temple. After seeing how many there were, I was questioning if I was going to have the authentic experience I thought it would be.
When I arrived at my temple, I was given an itinerary for the stay. It is not required that you follow it, but recommended if you want to have the full experience. I was then brought to my room, which was connected to the temple, in a hotel-like portion that seem to have been built onto it (which I’m sure was to accommodate more guests). The room was traditional Japanese style, with sliding doors, woven straw mats on the floor, a low table and a traditional Japanese mattresses (futon) to sleep on.
After I checked in, I walked around visiting the temples and shrines in the town, including the Kongobuji Temple, which is one of the most popular ones on Mount Kōya. The town itself is very quiet, peaceful and easily accessible by foot. Everything closes early, so if you are planning on eating or shopping, get it done before 5pm. After that, it becomes a ghost town. I did not realize everything shut early, so when I went looking for dinner, I had a hard time. I could have had eaten at the temple but I was starving and concerned about what type of meal was going to be given, since Buddhists are vegan. Eventually, I got lucky and found a restaurant that was open for another half hour. Whew! Otherwise, it would have been potato chips for dinner!
The rest of the night was spent in room, drinking tea and chatting with my friend that I was traveling with. We were given robes, which we wore (and loved), as they were extremely comfortable. It was a very relaxing, peaceful night.
In the morning, I attended the prayer ceremony in the temple, which was about 30 minutes. Afterwards, everyone went into the dining area, where breakfast was set up on individual low tables. There were a lot of people but it was not a loud atmosphere filled with chatter. Everyone sat silent, eating their meals. We were served a typical vegan buddhist breakfast, so bacon and eggs were definitely not on the menu. The meal consisted of tofu, miso soup, seaweed, pickled vegetables, rice and tea. I tried a bit of everything but I will admit… I went and got breakfast after I checked out!
Should you do it?
During the rest of my travels around Japan, many people asked me if the temple lodging is worth trying. If you are interested in doing something unique and cultural, I would definitely recommend it. The authenticity did lower for me a bit when I saw numerous temples offering accommodation. It also put a damper when I realize I was staying in a built on “hotel like” portion of the temple. However, it is a great way to step into the buddhist culture for a night. I managed to visit temples and shrines, stay in a traditional Japanese style room, attend a buddhist ceremony and try a buddhist breakfast. This is not something that many people get the opportunity to do. Each place that becomes popular for tourists, eventually alters a bit to accommodate the numerous people trying to visit, so I can’t hold that against my stay. Overall, I did feel as if I had an authentic experience and even left with a sense of calmness.