Mount Koya is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the center for Shingon Buddhism in Japan. The mountain, and its village with more than 100 temples, is considered a sacred area and attracts a huge number of visitors and Buddhist pilgrims each year. It’s also the final resting place of Kobo Daishi, the monk who launched Japan’s Shingon movement in 806 and chose Koyasan as the base for its monastic complex. Visitors can pay their respects to Kobo Daishi at his mausoleum in Okunoin Temple (no photos allowed) where, legend has it, he is still alive and sitting in eternal meditation.
I was so excited to make the trip myself and have the opportunity to stay in one of Koyasan’s Buddhist temples.
In fact, you can only stay in a temple if you’re planning an overnight trip to Koyasan. There are no hotels or guest houses. Of the mountain’s 100-plus temples, about 50 offer accommodation — or shukubo — for guests.
So, after riding the (steep!) cable car up the mountain …
I checked in for two nights at Fudoin Temple.
Two snowy nights, that is!
I’ve visited a lot of temples during my time in Japan, but Fudoin offered my first chance to sleep in one. I’d also never stayed in ryokan-style accommodation, and Koyasan gave me the opportunity to try that too.
Here’s what my room looked like:
There was a tea set on the low table, accompanied by an insulated pitcher of hot water.
There was a hair dryer, toothbrush/toothpaste and a small towel for the communal bath. More on that later.
There was also a yukata — a casual type of kimono made from cotton. More on that later too!
There was a space heater, because temples get very cold during the winter. Plus, a big TV and surprisingly strong Wi-Fi.
It turns out that even Buddhist temples in Japan have vending machines.
And fancy TOTO toilets! I had to pay extra for a room with its own toilet and vanity, but it was worth the splurge to avoid walking those freezing-cold hallways to the shared bathrooms, especially at night.
Before entering the temple, shoes must be removed and left on an outside shelf. Slippers for walking the temple halls are provided, but wearing them on the tatami mats in the guest rooms is a no-no. When I took off my slippers in the genkan (entryway) of my room, I always had to remember to turn them in the proper direction — outward, facing the door.
Likewise, the toilet had its own set of slippers exclusively for that room’s use. Never wear your house slippers inside the toilet room, and never wear your “toilet slippers” anywhere else. That same rule applies in temples, people’s homes, and in all the other places where this form of etiquette is the norm.
Koyasan’s temple accommodations usually include dinner and breakfast, and these vegetarian meals are famous for their quality and presentation. The name for this type of cuisine is shojin ryori, and the food is blessed by the monks before it is served. Some temples provide dinner in the individual guest rooms but, at Fudoin, mealtime is a more formal occasion. Each night at 6:00 p.m., a monk would escort me to a private room in another part of the temple that was all decked out with beautiful furniture, table settings and a lavish spread of food. Here’s a photo of my dinner the first night. For an added fee, guests can also order Japanese beer or sake.
I had sake. Kanpai!
During my dinner time, one of the monks entered my guest room to rearrange the furniture and prepare the shikibuton. This foldable mattress is taken from storage each night and placed directly on the floor. I was eager to see how comfy it was for sleeping.
It was surprisingly comfy!
In fact, everything about my stay at Fudoin was comfy. But it’s worth mentioning that there are a lot of rules to follow in a ryokan and/or temple. I tried to do my homework in advance, but it was still a bit intimidating, especially since most of the monks, and other guests during my visit, spoke very little English. It made me extra grateful for that strong temple Wi-Fi and the chance to do some quick Googling.
Q. What do you wear under your yukata?
Just your undies and, if it’s cold, a light T-shirt.
Q. How do I wrap my yukata?
Q. How do women sit on the floor in Japan?
Either with their legs folded beneath them in the seiza position (ouch!) or folded to one side. Only men should sit cross-legged.
Q. When do I wear the yukata?
From what I’ve read, yukata can be worn anywhere, and at any time, in a ryokan. At Fudoin, I was told to wear it to dinner and after the communal bath. But not to breakfast.
Guests in Koyasan temples are usually invited to observe the monks’ morning prayers. Fudoin’s prayers took place each day at 7:00 a.m., and I really enjoyed the experience. While I didn’t have the know-how to participate in some of the practices, I certainly felt welcomed and treated graciously. The prayers I attended lasted for about 40 minutes, and I would’ve gladly spent 40 more listening to the monks’ chanting, while smelling the incense and marveling at the ceremony hall’s beautiful interior.
After the prayers, breakfast was served to all guests in the communal dining hall.
And, when I returned to my room, the shikibuton had been stowed and the furniture returned to its “day” configuration.
The only temple experience I’ve yet to cover is the shared bath. All of Fudoin’s guests are expected to make use of the temple’s onsen each night before dinner. Communal bathing was another first for me, and I was not looking forward to it.
But I did it anyway, of course, and it led to something wonderful that I never anticipated.
And I’ll save that story for my next post!