WE EXPERIENCED A JAPANESE TEMPLE STAY. THIS IS WHAT HAPPENED

A Japanese temple stay should be at the top of the list of activities you must experience if you are going to Japan and are intrigued by the culture. While I was researching a trip to Japan I read up on interesting places to stay like the traditional ryokan onsen or pod hotels. I kept coming back to a Japanese temple stay. Some of these temples are over a thousand years old with resident monks and religious services. Furthermore, they tend to be in beautiful and religiously significant areas of the country. What a wonderful opportunity for deeper immersion in a fascinating culture. This is not just reading about the experience, it’s living it.

Gardens at a Japanese temple stay

I quickly became totally taken up with the idea of experiencing a Japanese temple stay but had no idea how to go about finding and booking the right one. After much groping my way around the web I came across a site with English-speaking staff called Japanese Guest Houses. English is not very common in temples. These guys went through the process of explaining the Japanese temple stay patiently and professionally. I wasn’t sure which temple to choose and they showed me location options, pricing and what’s included. I changed my itinerary several times and they accommodated me graciously.

I eventually settled on a temple called Shojoshin-in, in Koya-san or Mount Koya, a religious community. The best part was that they send you an etiquette guide on the dos and don’ts of staying at a Japanese temple or ryokan (traditional inn). They also ended up booking two separate ryokan stays during this trip. Be aware that there is a 24 hours response time because the company is in Japan. You can also book through other services like booking.com.

Gardens and koi pond at a Japanese temple stay

Getting to remote Koya-san is an experience in itself. After all, it is on a mountain top. From Osaka you take two trains, a very picturesque cable car ride (get a good window to enjoy the view) and a bus. But, this being Japan, directions are clearly marked and people are very helpful, so you won’t get lost.

When you look at Japanese traditional architecture, you have to look at Japanese culture and its relationship with nature. You can actually live in a harmonious, close contact with nature – this very unique to Japan. – Tadao Ando Click To Tweet

Koya-san, the “san” conveys honor as in “Honorable Koya Mountain,” was founded in the early 800s CE. The compound grew to include over 120 temples. The adherents of Shingon Buddhism consider the town and mountain sacred because it is the resting place of Kobo Daishi, the religion’s founder. His mausoleum lies at the center of the local Okunoin cemetery surrounded by thousands of gravestones and tall cedars. In fact, the area is so meaningful to its adherents that it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.

Once you arrive at Shojoshin-In you quickly realize the level of authenticity you will experience. This is not a Disneyland-esque representation of a Japanese temple. This is a working Japanese temple with resident monks and regular religious services. Inside the temple, everything is traditional Japanese. At reception, you kneel on cushions, pay the monk in advance and receive your room number. There are no room keys. This is, after all, a temple.

The monk informed us that morning prayer services would take place at 6 am. I assumed he was just letting me know as a courtesy. In fact, the monks make it clear that you are expected to attend the 45-minute ceremony. Now, some folks may be put off by the thought of waking up at 6 am to attend the services of a religion you know very little about. Go! It is a unique, soothing, beautiful experience which you are allowed to film. Services are open to all regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof.

In a place like Mount Koya, a night at a temple lodging can cost anywhere between 8,000 and 18,000 Japanese yen per person depending on the temple and the location of the room. This cost includes dinner and breakfast. Japanese temple lodgings in less religiously significant cities will be less expensive. It is important to note that many temples will only accept cash. It is also possible to book the room without dinner or any of the meals, but the meals are such an integral part of the Japanese temple stay experience that you really should sign up for them.

Meals during a Japanese temple stay

A multi-course Japanese style haute cuisine dinner is called a kaiseki ryori. The temple tries to emulate this traditional kaiseki ryori but only with vegetarian food, in keeping with the Buddhist belief that it is wrong to take the life of a fellow creature. A ryori can involve as many as 20 dishes. The meals are fresh, seasonal, innovative dishes and they are delicious. Surprisingly you don’t miss the meat and other ingredients. Creatively prepared dishes make great substitutes for meat. I discovered ingredients I had never experienced before which is always a delight! Breakfast is served after services and dinner tends to be early. Meals are served by monks in communal dining rooms.

The rooms are, as expected, traditional Japanese style with tatami floors and futons laid out on the floor which are then stored away during the day. In winter, heaters are provided in the rooms. Many rooms will face or open out to serene gardens. It’s all very relaxing. Wi-Fi is available but there are no TVs.

Shojoshin-in offered gender-segregated communal baths and bathrooms which the monks also use (I saw no female monks).

Wooden architecture at a Japanese temple stay

My favorite part of a Japanese temple stay is being able to explore the temple itself. Most temples are surrounded by tranquil gardens with ponds and decorative statues. The architecture of the temples is also noteworthy with intricately carved wooden structures throughout. Strolling through the temples and gardens is a definite highlight of the stay.

Learn more about Japan with these useful country guides. Lonely Planet: Japan, Cool Japan Guide, Etiquette Guide to Japan, and Understanding Japan.

A Japanese temple stay is an unforgettable cultural immersion experience you should not miss when in Japan. Would you like to go?

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