Accommodation in Japan is generally classified into two main categories: modern and traditional. Tourists who are keen to learn more about the Japanese culture usually opt for the latter, as they could immerse themselves in the lifestyle and gain a deeper understanding of Japanese customs and practices.
The Japanese inn or ryokan 旅館 is a popular accommodation for foreign tourists. The relaxing onsen bath, an opportunity to wear a yukata, enjoy a filling kaiseki meal, and sleep in a futon bed are some of the experiences we wish to enjoy. However, an accommodation called shukubo 宿坊 is getting popular among tourists. Shukubo basically refers to staying in a Japanese temple and experiencing the calm and peaceful traditional lifestyle like a monk.
Shukubo at Koyasan 高野山
Towards the north-eastern side of Wakayama Prefecture lies the spiritual heartland of Japan, Koyasan – a highly-recommended location for shukubo. There are more than 50 temples here that offer accommodation, and believers and foreign tourists are welcomed to spend a night here and experience a monastic stay. For those who are not familiar with shukubo, you may be wondering what to expect by staying at a temple. Let’s dive into the details.
First of all, everyone staying at a shukubo has to adhere to communal living. This requires you to use shared public baths, and some lodgings may require you to have your meals at the dining hall instead. A great opportunity to familiarise yourself with the temple’s community, and to meet other guests staying under the same roof.
Secondly, there are restricted hours for bathing. In the morning, it is usually from 6 AM to 9 AM, and for nighttime it is 4 PM to 9 PM. The hours may have a slight difference depending on the rules set for each respective shukubo, but it would at most differ an hour or so.
Thirdly, lodgings are minimalistic. One of the things that strikingly stands out in a regular shukubo is that sleeping rooms are simple but adequate. It may not be as luxurious and beautifully-designed as a ryokan, but the bed or futon would give you a comfortable sleep.
How to enjoy Shokubo
1. Morning service
Every morning, monks will gather at the main hall to pray. There is the ritual of hitting gongs, ringing handbells and the deep chanting by the monks. One of the highlights you can anticipate is when the monk lit a fire. The morning service takes about 30 minutes’ to 45 minutes’ and after it would be time for breakfast. Many foreign tourists had a great experience observing the morning service and I believe it would be the same for you!
The cuisine served in the temple is called shojin ryori 精進料理, a vegetarian meal. Although without meat, the seasonal ingredients and local produce used are delicious. The meal also looks appetising as there will definitely be five colours (black, white, red, yellow and green) and five different flavours (salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami).
3. Relax, Meditate and Reflect
The serene and quiet surrounding of the temple puts your mind at ease. It is the perfect place to slow down your pace. You could spend your time to do personal meditation, read, or even write – whatever activity that helps you to do reflection. Bring along a book or two to read if you are the type that enjoys reading.
4. Copy Sutras
Sutras are Buddhist scriptures and some temples provide this form of activity for visitors. If you did not bring or prepare anything for meditation, you could copy sutras using a Japanese brush. This calligraphy writing calms your mind as you focus on writing the strokes.
5. Evening or night stroll
As the day gets quieter and there is a lesser crowd, go for a stroll around Koyasan. There are many old temples to explore, and if you are keen for more adventure I recommend the well-known Okunoin Cemetery, the main attraction of Koyasan. Instead of the usual spooky atmosphere, one would expect in a cemetery, people who have been to Okunoin described it as beautiful, quiet and tranquil. There are over 200,000 tombs here and many famous people in the Japanese history such as feudal lords and samurais are buried here.
You would also come across many little stone statues with cute hats and aprons as you walk around the cemetery. These statues are called jizo, a buddha that protects lost children, women who miscarriaged, and passed away stillborn.
Getting to Koyasan
Koyasan is easily accessible by train from Shin-Osaka Station and the entire journey will take about 2.5 hours.
- From Shin-Osaka Station, board the Osaka metro heading to Tennoji and alight at Namba’s subway station.
- Transfer to the Nankai line at Namba Station by boarding the Limited Express Koya 5 train and alight at Gokurakubashi Station.
- Take the Nankai Koyasan Cable Car and alight at Koyasan Station
In short, as compared to places that travellers would prefer to stay, a shukubo experience differs in terms of lesser personal services. Although nowadays some shukubo has started to offer luxury stay that comes with private bathrooms and better customer service, there is nothing quite like staying at a regular temple and live among the monks. To get an authentic Japanese experience, be ready to forfeit some comfort and immerse into the culture! After all, it’s an opportunity of a lifetime!