A phone alarm jarred me from a deep sleep. The faintest bit of light was coming across the sky, but all I could really make out were the lumps of blankets where my roommates slept on either side of me. I closed my eyes for another minute or two as I gathered the will to leave the depths of my warm futons. The sliding glass door to the patio had been left cracked open and the rain was pitter pattering on the tile roof of this old building. I sleepily wished my friend wasn't there so I could snuggle closer to my husband under the futon blankets, but we had an appointment to keep with a few monks. It was time to get up.
I was talking to a friend about our respective stays at a temple, or shukubo 宿坊, on Mt.Koya 高野山 and our wildly different experiences and it got me thinking about how I never actually shared what our overnight stay was like. As I LOVED our night in a shukubo 宿坊 and the vegetarian cuisine they served, shojin-ryori精進料理, I thought I'd share where we stayed, how we booked, and what we thought.
When my best friend from college came over to visit us one summer, I really wanted to give her a few unique experiences while also getting a chance to do new things for us. While we'd been to Koya-san twice already, I had never stayed overnight in a temple and it was something I'd always been really intrigued by. A friend of ours said that it was one of the best weekends trips he had taken and that sealed our plans.
I tried booking directly online in Japanese as many of these temples are bookable on places like Jalan.net, but all of the more affordable shukubos appeared to be full. Some of the plans I was seeing were over 20,000 yen per person, which was far out of our budget for this trip. Because I was trying to make a reservation so last minute, I decided to try booking through Koya-san's temple lodging website in English and luckily they found us a place for their lowest available price (around 10,000 per person). We were booked at Honno-in 本王院, one of the smaller temples on Mt.Koya. They don't have a website and there's not much information on them in Japanese or English.
Honno-in was a little difficult to find. We accidentally went into a beautiful temple first and were like "whoa a hundred bucks will get you far here" but the nice monk politely told me I was at the wrong temple and pointed out Honno-in across the street. While not as immediately impressive, Honno-in is a beautiful little temple founded in 1158 and has all the small details I love about old Japanese buildings like wood floors - smoothed by a hundred years of slippered feet, glass - wavy with age, and the soft scrape of doors sliding open and closed. The monk that greeted us did not speak a lot of English, but I think if you don't know any Japanese you'd be fine here. We were told about dinner times, he took us to our room to drop of our luggage, and we went off for the day.
I'm not sure about the more expensive temples, but at the less expensive ones, they are not run like ryokans. Monks are not pouring you tea or pulling your futons out for you. There was tea and crackers out on the low table for us, but we had to prepare it all ourselves. I can't remember very clearly, but I think we set up our futons as well. We had dinner at the temple around 6:00 and were ushered into a private tatami room with beautiful lacquered tray tables set with one of the most delicate, lovely meals I've had in Japan. I'm the first to admit that I'm not a huge fan of seafood, organs, or weird parts of fish. If you've ever eaten kaiseki-ryori 会席料理, you know that you will come across at least one of these things in Japanese haute cuisine and this makes it hard to enjoy it, even if it is beautiful. As shojin-ryori is all vegetarian, I could eat all this stuff and not be worried about encountering something that made me uncomfortable. This dinner was one of my most memorable meals in Japan. Koya-dofu 高野豆腐 is a tofu that monks make from sesame paste (I've heard the monks in training are the ones forced to grind the sesame seeds down into a tofu paste.) It's not easy to find outside of the monk vegetarian cuisine. If it was easier to find, I'd be eating it all the time. I do have to be honest that Josh and our friend weren't as overwhelmed by deliciousness as I was, so your reaction to a completely vegetarian meal may not be as strong as mine. During dinner, we noticed there were other groups eating in different rooms, but we never interacted with them at all during our stay.
We were told to use the baths before 9:00 or 10:00. I don't remember if there was a sign-up sheet, but we were the only two people in the bath area. It definitely was not a fancy onsen room, but it was a communal bath with wash stations and it did use mountain water. We were sufficiently relaxed. We turned in early because we had signed up to go to a morning ceremony at 6:00am.
Ok I have to be honest and say that while I was glad to experience a morning prayer session, sitting in a backless chair in a dark room with a monk chanting in rapid fire Japanese with incense burning and bells ringing at 6:00 am is torture. I was nodding off the entire time and I hadn't expected the ceremony to be an entire hour. We were there with a few older Japanese people and another foreign guy. The other tourist kept taking flash photos of the ceremony and all 3 of us quietly kept scooting away from this rude dude so we wouldn't be associated with him. I get wanting to document something beautiful and special, but seriously? Flash photography during a prayer ceremony? We were able to take part in the ceremony with some coaching by our Japanese co-stayers and afterwards could exam the room in greater detail. Breakfast was around 7:00 a.m and it was just as delightful as the night before. I do wish places like this wouldn't serve so much extra rice because I'm sure that entire extra serving they give gets throw away most of the time.
It started raining so we skipped any further sightseeing that day. We checked out and made our way back down the mountain.
I've talked to a few people about their overnight trips at Koya-san and it seems that enjoyment varies depending on what their expectations were for the stay and the specific temple. If you're expecting to be living that esthetic life and helping the monks, you will be disappointed. I did have one girl tell me she did this as part of a study abroad group, but I've never seen any info about this being advertised. Most shukubo are essentially minshukus in a temple. Almost all but the most expensive have shared baths and toilet areas. Food is eaten in a common area. You don't interact with the monks much outside of services, check in and check out, and meal times. We were allowed to wonder around the temple and the grounds, but there were places that were clearly off limits to tourists. I loved Honno-in, but other people have told me they didn't enjoy the temples they stayed at so do some research. If you book with the shukubo association, you don't really have a choice with accommodation, so if there is a specific place you want try online or directly through their website. If you speak some Japanese and are interested in trying out monk food in a temple without the stay, try booking with Jalan.net for a day trip out to Koya-san for lunch prepared by the monks.
While I've written two different posts on Koya-san and this post is specifically about our temple stay, below are some photos of our trip I took that I like and want to share. We visited on the first day of the Obon season in August and this was probably the busiest I've ever seen the graveyards. Not busy with tourists, but busy with monks cleaning, giving offerings at graves, praying, and lighting candles at each grave. It gave a very lively appearance to an otherwise somber place.
I have a very clear memory of our way back home. We were sitting at a bus stop and it was pouring rain. I had been looking at the stop across the street and remarking at the very large German family sitting there all wearing shorts and sneakers and remembering how a British friend of mine rather snootily told me only American tourists dressed like that. I was going to message him about it when I saw that Robin Williams had died. All 3 of us were in shock, like everyone else in the US was, and we sat there in the rain on mountain in Japan talking about our favorite movies of his. It's strange how strong certain memories are. Things I'd rather remember, like the feel of my dad's hands in mine fade, while I remember mundane things people said still quite clearly. Our minds are like graveyards and specific memories like graves. No matter how well we care for those headstones, they fade and crumble until no one remembers who was buried there in the first place.