Back in 2016 I learned that it was possible, at a few locations, to stay the night at a Buddhist Temple. This kind of temple lodging, called a Shukubo, was traditionally reserved for pilgrims but these days all are welcome to stay and take part in temple life. As I was already planning to go to Tomogashima Island (read that post here) off the coast of Wakayama, I decided to check out Mount Koya as well, which is a well known historical and secular destination.
The Spirit Realm: Mount Koya
I have to call it the spirit realm because there is something so special about this place, it just has a vibe, for lack of a better word. Koyasan is famous for being the birthplace of Shingon Buddhism and is home to over 100 temples. It is very much a religious mountain town which also has some great cafes and the usual souvenir shops.
A highlight of my trip here was visiting Okunoin Cemetery, which is the largest cemetery in Japan, and the resting place of a number of important historical figures. Look for the graves of Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi while you’re here. As a long time fan of Japanese history and historical fiction it was truly a special moment to come upon them in this lush green world, especially as I had come in without doing previous research.
To get to Mount Koya is half the fun. First you’ll take a train that will hug the mountain side and pass some of the tiniest most remote stations you have ever seen. Finally the train reaches an end and you travel by cable car to the summit. It’s more than likely you will be able to enjoy some atmospheric fog as you look out over the trees and small houses.
Staying at a Shukubo
As Temples vary greatly from each other, your experience will vary on where you decide to stay. I stayed in a very large temple and decided to splurge on a suite room. This included a reading corner with a view of the garden and a large in-room bathtub. This temple also had its own beautiful onsen so that you can enjoy a soak in the public cedar tub if that was more your style. Sleeping arrangements were of course on the tatami on one of the largest and fluffiest futons I have ever experienced.
Part of staying at a temple is receiving temple hospitality (breakfast and dinner will likely be included as part of the price) which means that you can enjoy some of the finest vegetarian cuisine Japan can offer. Dinner was a multi-course affair with a number of dishes which included tofu, rice, vegetable tempura, and soba (Japanese buckwheat noodles).
If you can wake up early enough (around 6:00) you are welcome to join morning prayers. There was also an option to copy sutras (religious texts), this is an expression of piety but is also meant to be relaxing and contemplative. As I don’t know how to write Chinese characters, or Kanji, this wasn’t all that relaxing for me (haha) but I enjoyed it a lot. My husband enjoyed watching my “unique” take on proper stroke order. Sometimes in life you just have to wing it!
Whether you’re traveling to Japan or living here I think staying at a shukubo and visiting Mount Koya are well worth it!