Traditional temple stays offer unique insight into a very different Japan
Many visitors come to Japan for the bright lights and round-the-clock lifestyle of the nation's futuristic cities. But an increasing number of travelers want to explore beyond the neon and noise to connect with the country's history and traditional culture. A night at a temple offers precisely that. The sense of peace and tranquility, and the opportunity to experience a rarely seen part of Japanese life, should not be passed up.
Shukubo, or temple stays, began centuries ago when pilgrims often had no place to stay and were taken in by temples for a night or two. Today, it has become the ideal way for visitors to gain a better understanding of life inside a temple, which has hardly changed in millennia. For someone used to the faster pace of city life, sitting on the polished wooden balcony that overlooks the immaculately raked gravel of the temple garden or listening to the monks' chanted prayers is therapeutic in itself.
A sound night's sleep
A night at a temple may not be a five-star experience, but it is far from uncomfortable. Typically, a thick futon will be rolled out in your room at the temple, with tatami mat flooring and sliding wooden doors separating the guests. Some temples even have Wi-Fi connections if you find it impossible to leave the modern world completely behind.
Shojin ryori cuisine
The sound of the temple gong breaks the day's silence, summoning you to the shojin ryori evening meal—a feast initially for the eyes and then for the palate.
Served on low tables, you'll sit cross-legged on square zabuton cushions. Shojin ryori is vegetarian cuisine that uses no meat or fish. The concept was introduced into Japan with Buddhism in the 6th century and has been refined ever since, but is still a rarity outside temples.
Typically, a meal will consist of a dozen or more small, lacquered plates and bowls with small amounts of each dish. As well as a steaming mound of rice, there is a hearty broth with mushrooms, tempura vegetables and sesame tofu that melts in the mouth. Pickled vegetables are another staple, although many of the other ingredients are collected from the surrounding hillsides and will change with the seasons. Beer and sake is served with meals at some temples, but not all.
Experience temple traditions
During your stay, you may be encouraged to try your hand at shakyo, or the art of copying a sutra by tracing characters with a brush dipped in ink. Originally a method of spreading Buddhist teachings, it is today regarded as a spiritual practice.
Some temples have traditional baths or gardens which make peaceful spots to contemplate. Take a moment to appreciate meticulously kept gardens, where koi carp move lazily in the pools, taking on a ghostly sheen in light shed by lanterns. Notice the gravel garden, which has usually been raked to form the Sanskrit character “hrih” to symbolize a white lotus in a pond.
Whether you are an early riser or not, a gong will break the silence shortly before 6 a.m. each morning. Join the monks to attend early morning devotions known as gongyo. Assume a cross-legged position on the floor, with your back straight, and concentrate on breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth as the head monk chants sutras.
The monks hold their immobile positions perfectly, but do not mind if you have to stretch your legs periodically. If you are not used to the practice, you might find your mind wandering and that you're losing the feeling in your legs after 20 minutes or so. Their chants conclude with the sounding of a bell.
Some temples encourage overnight guests to find a peaceful spot in the grounds and experience zazen meditation surrounded by nature's bounty, while all will be keen to share the history and philosophies of their chosen home.
At Rengejoin Temple, part of the monastic community of Shingon esoteric Buddhism atop Koyasan in Wakayama Prefecture, a ceremony is conducted every evening, making it a popular choice for shukubo.
A monk ladles a few drops of oil onto the coals in a metal brazier on the altar in front of him, filling the chamber with smoke. From flat wooden tablets, the monk reads the prayers written by visitors; some for health or success in business, others a request to the gods for assistance in upcoming exams. One by one, the monk reads the inscription, lifts the marker to his forehead, bows, and places it among the glowing pile on the brazier. It's a compelling ceremony which can only be witnessed as part of shukubo.
Where to do a temple stay
Temple stays can be arranged in a number of popular pilgrimage destinations across Japan, including the ancient capital of Kyoto, but also in some of the nation's more off-the-beaten-path prefectures, such as Aomori, Tottori and Nagano.
The history and sheer beauty of Koyasan through the changing seasons arguably gives it the edge over other shukubo options. The community has made it easier for foreigners to make reservations in English through the http://eng.shukubo.net/ website.
There are more than 50 temples on Koyasan that permit outsiders to stay within their walls, offering an insight into monks' lives.
Originally built more than nine centuries ago, it was rebuilt around 150 years ago after a devastating fire tore through many of the temples, prayer rooms, traditional gateways and pagodas that make up the community. Now recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage site, a plain on Koyasan some 800 meters above sea level was selected by the monk Kukai in 819 as the focal point of his religious sect, in part because the eight surrounding peaks reputedly resemble a lotus plant.
All information is correct as of March 2019.