One of the top experiences that always seems to top travel lists for Japan is an overnight stay in a Buddhist Temple. I decided to tick this one off my list at a recent stay at Ekoin on Mount Koya, one of the top religious sites in Japan.
Staying in a temple is a very unique experience, and has a totally different feel from just staying in a Ryokan (traditional Japanese inn). The whole site feels peaceful and tranquil, and is simply beautiful to walk around. The buildings wrap around a large courtyard, central to which is a small pond. I actually heard frogs jumping around in there!
I stayed in the temples secondary building, which only consisted of guest rooms. We had a shared seating space downstairs, along with toilets and sinks. Each room was a traditional Japanese style, with sliding paper doors, woven tatami on the floor, and futons for sleeping. My room had a great view of the gardens, and a giant tree was just inches away from my window. I spent quite some time sat on my window sill, feet dangling over the edge, enjoying the serenity of the view. That was right up until I began to hear the dulcet tones of another guest singing “Shake it Off” by Taylor Swift!
The food served here is traditional Japanese vegetarian cuisine, which is lovingly prepared by the monks, and served to you in your room. These meals are known as Shojin Ryori and a big part of Buddhism, after being brought over from China and Korea.
The meals are completely vegetarian and consist of lots of delicious Japanese vegetables and tofu. The meals I was served looked amazing, you couldn’t fault the presentation, thats for sure! Sadly, I didn’t enjoy the food at all! This is no comment on the quality of the meals – they just really were not to my taste. I don’t think I’ll be making the switch to vegetarianism anytime soon!
A big part of staying at a temple is taking part in their religious ceremonies. At Ekoin, the first thing you get to experience is a lesson in Ajikan meditation. These lessons are held everyday in the temple’s meditation room. The lessons are run by one of the monks, and are done in English, so you can learn lots about the methodology and beliefs surrounding this meditation practice. I’ve never tried any kind of meditation before, and was quite skeptical as to how I would find it. I was pleasantly surprised, as I really enjoyed the experience. It was so interesting learning about the beliefs behind it, and I found myself really relaxing – I can’t even tell you how long we did it for, I have no idea!
The next morning, it was time for the morning prayers. These take place everyday from 06:30am, so you have to wake up nice and early! While you are allowed to take pictures, you can’t use flash, or have a camera that makes any kind of shutter noise. This is not a tourist attraction, it is a religious practice that the monks must do everyday. Personally, I didn’t feel comfortable taking pictures as the ceremony was so peaceful and personal. During the ceremony, everyone is invited to take part and pray for their ancestors.
After morning prayers, Ekoin also has a very special, exclusive ceremony. They are the only temple on Koysan to hold a fire ritual. This is done every morning after prayers, and is held in an adjoining temple. I ended up with a front row seat, and was right next to the drums. This gave the whole event so much gravitas, as I could feel both the heat from the fire, and the vibrations from the drum. This ceremony was much louder, and I felt more comfortable taking a couple of pictures.
You also have the option of trying out some sutra copying in your room. This involves copying out Buddhist sutras using a caligraphy pen onto paper, and then writing down your wish at the end. The monks will then burn this during the fire ritual, and your wish should come true.
Staying on Mount Koya means you have to visit Okunoin, the largest cemetery in Japan, and home to Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum – the founder of Shingo Buddhism. This cemetery is literally a few minutes walk from Ekoin, and they even hold night tours there (when it’s not raining – which it was when I went..). It’s fairly easy to get here as well, from Osaka you can catch a train to Gokurakubashi, and then take the cable car up to Koyasan station. Once you reach the station, there are guides to help you find which bus to get on and direct you to your temple.
All in all, it was a fantastic experience, and I really wish I’d been able to stay another night, but the temple was fully booked! Be sure to book there in advance, as this is definitely one of the more popular temple-stays, as many of the monks speak good English. Check out their website here to read more, and book.
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