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Published: October 30th 2009
Shukubo, or temple stay, experiences at Mount Koya, or Kōya-san (高野山), have been described in this forum more often, but I enjoyed my stay so much that I feel obliged to describe my own experience. The Okunoin Cemetery, Kongobuji Temple with the Banryutei rock garden and the area around the Konpon Daitō which make up the main sites in Mt Koya all are fabulous and have all well deserved entries in this forum and therefore I want to focus mainly on our temple lodging, or shukubo, experience. Note that there appears to be a misconception with tourists to Japan that Mt Koya is the only place to enjoy a temple stay in Japan, this is not the case and in fact my most enjoyable shukubo experience was at a temple in Saitama close to Tokyo (see below).
We had booked the Sanboin shukubo which has a 1200-year history via their webpage
and arrived early in the morning, dropped off our luggage and headed out to see the sights. We returned around 4PM, the check-in time and were shown to our room by a monk. The room turned out to be large and in traditional Japanese style like at a ryokan. There was plenty of time to relax and take a bath at the shared facilities, again, very much like a ryokan or an onsen. When the food arrived the big table in the room was moved aside to make space for individual tables with the food on. As a concession to the guests, beer could be ordered, however, no concessions were made to the food which still is strictly vegetarian and is the same food as eaten by the monks. Somehow I had received the impression that monks survive on a little rice and pickles, how wrong I was: there were pickles of course, but the shoujin ryouri, as the food is called in Japanese Buddhist monasteries, was plenty and delicious. That goma dofu (tofu-like but made from ground sesame and kuzu roots) was amazingly tasty.
Since there weren't many guests, the monk serving us loved to chat and we took the opportunity to ask him all about how he got involved with Buddhism and ended up a monk: an unhappy salaryman, he decided to spend 3 months at this Sanboin temple and after returning to be a salaryman once more, a year later he decided that that wasn't the life for him.
The futons were laid out and we enjoyed a quiet night at the top of the mountain. Until 5.15AM that was, when the bells awoke us and we had 15 minutes to get ready to join morning prayers. Photography was allowed of ourselves, but we were asked to refrain from photographing the holy areas, I didn't bring my camera so I wouldn't be tempted. One tip for people considering a temple stay and joining the morning prayers: bring some change as there will be several times you will need to kneel down, make a small offering, ring the prayer bell and pray.
The service took a little over an hour and when we got back to our room we discovered that the futons had been cleared, no time for a quick nap, it was time for breakfast. Once again, the food was excellent and the monk cheerful and curious about how we had experienced the service.
Access to Kōya-san
From the Shin-Osaka shinkansen station we took the underground to Namba Station in Osaka from where we took the Nankai Electric Railway Koya line to Gokurakubashi Station at the base of the mountain. A cable car from Gokurakubashi took us to the top in 5 minutes where we got on a bus for the last few kilometres to get to the centre where all the temple lodgings are located.
Other recommended temple stays
If you are looking for a temple stay close to Tokyo, I would like to recommend Taiyoji in Chichbu
which I enjoyed even more than the temple stay at Koya-san.
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