Temple lodging or shukubo is an old type of accommodation in Japan. It caters to visiting pilgrims but recently gained popularity with foreign tourists. An overnight stay in a shukubo is one of the unique experiences you can have of Japan. And a good place to sample this type of accommodation is in Mt. Koya in Wakayama prefecture, Kansai region.
Getting to Koyasan
Mt. Koya or Koyasan is a sacred mountain, with 52 temples serving as shukubo. A night in a temple lodging offers an experience of the simple life of monks, including a taste of their cuisine, a chance to observe and join their morning prayers, bathe in a public bath, and sleep in traditional style Japanese beds (futons).
Most shukubos in Koyasan have online reservation through Japanese guest houses and Japanican. You can also find some in booking.com but these should be reserved months in advance. If you suddenly find yourself in Koyasan without any reservation, go first to the Koyasan Tourist Office where they have a list of all 52 temples that offer lodgings. I noticed that some of these are not on online booking sites or only have Japanese websites. The tourist information staff will be very happy to help you. However make sure to arrive earlier than 5pm because the town sleeps early.
I started my day early in Osaka, taking the earliest train to Wakayama. I visited the castle and had some of Wakayama’s famed ramen, ‘chuka-soba’. From Wakayama Station, I took the JR line to Hashimoto, then transfered to Nankai line for Gokuraku-bashi Station「極楽橋駅」where there is a cable car to Koyasan. Coming from Wakayama Station, this trip took me almost two hours of travel.
It was already 3pm when the cable car ascended Koyasan station. For me, it’s just enough time because I planned to visit Okunoin cemetery before dusk. So I went straight to the tourist office and rent a bicycle. And because I carried only one small bag with me, it was not a problem to go sightseeing first. After all, my reserved accommodation in Kongō Sanmai-in’s check in time is 4pm.
Kongō Sanmai-in Temple
I had a few options where to stay but I opted for Kongō Sanmai-in because I was drawn to the century old trees in its garden. Standing proud after you passed the main gate is the Kongō Pagoda of Sanmain-in, a structure that dates back to 400 years. Entirely made of Japanese cypress, the pagoda is the temple’s main attraction and a cultural treasure of Koyasan.
As soon as I arrived at the temple, I went to the receiving area. A monk showed me in where I paid for my accommodation. Please note that most temple lodgings in Koyasan only accept cash, so be sure to have enough. After these preliminaries, the monk showed me around the temple. He showed me the Buddhist’s altar and the prayer hall. He told me about the 6am morning prayer which I am welcomed to join in the next morning. After this, we left this building, and passed by the garden to go to the sleeping areas. He showed me to my room. The guest rooms are on a separate building. Another building inside the compound is where the monks stay.
As I got inside my room, the first thing the monk told me was, the room can’t be locked from the outside. So the only time I can lock the door is when I am inside. I find this level of trust refreshing. After all, Japan is a place where I always feel safe.
The moment I entered the room, I went to the door that opens to the garden. The view from this spot reminds me of classic Japanese movies. I distinctly remember a scene from Kurosawa’s film, Sanshiro Sugata, where Sanshiro emerges from the pond with lotus flowers blooming in the night. It’s exactly the kind of location where such imagery can happen.
Aside from the garden, I also like the size of my room. And because I travelled alone, I feel it’s even more spacious. The room is complete with a low table, a TV set, closet, toilet, a small wash area, and futons stowed away inside the wooden cabinet. There is also a summer kimono (yukata) that I can use as loungewear.
I did not book dinner so I decided to walk around town and look for food. There are only a few restaurants in Koyasan and they close early so it’s actually better to book dinner with your shukubo. Because I didn’t find a restaurant within walking distance, I settled for convenience store food. There is one Daily Yamazaki near Kongō Sanmai-in. I bought food and brought them inside my room. After dinner I went for a dip in the public bath.
Praying with Monks
The next day, I woke up early just before the sound of the morning bells wake me up. I quickly get dressed and proceeded to the prayer hall to witness the monk’s morning prayers. When I reached the hall, a few other guests, mostly foreigners are already there. The prayer started right away with the head monk leading the chant. About 20 monks gathered around and the chant lasted for 30 minutes.
The most challenging for me was sitting that long alternating between seiza (traditional way of sitting in Japan) and the half lotus sitting position. My legs were sore. Actually, sitting like this is not required but I was determined because all the monks and Japanese guests were sitting that way. Other guests opted to stand which was fairly acceptable.
After the prayer ended, we walked by the Buddhist’s statues in the prayer hall. From this close distance, I realized that these are indeed cultural treasures. When the ceremony ended, I roamed around the garden for a few minutes. When I got back to my room, my breakfast is already inside.
Shukubos only serve vegetarian food. My breakfast consists of yudofu (boiled tofu), pickled vegetables, nori, kombu, dried plum, miso soup, and a separate container for steamed white rice. All of which I find satisfying. I particularly liked the pickled vegetables, the yudofu, and the fragrant white rice.
After breakfast, I prepared to leave. I checked out at 10am and roamed around Koyasan, visiting Konpon Daito pagoda, Kongobunji, and the Tokugawa Mausoleum, before heading to Kyoto.