Sleeping with Monks: A Night in a Japanese Temple in Koya-San

It took eight modes of transport to get to Koya-san from Kyoto: metro, bullet train, metro, train, bus, train, cable car, bus. In any other country the journey would have taken all day, but despite a damaged train track from the recent typhoon, in Japan it took less than four hours and the transfers were seamless.

We visited Koya-san, the respectful name given to Mount Koya, to experience traditional Japan. The secluded temple town is located high up in the forest-covered mountains of Kansai and was founded 1200 years ago by Kobo Daishi to spread his teachings about Shingon Buddhism. One temple has grown to over one hundred and the town is now an important Buddhist centre. It is also one of the best places to stay in shukubo, traditional temple lodging to get a taste of life as a monk including sampling shojin ryori, vegetarian monk’s cuisine and rising early to participate in the daily chanting and meditation ceremony.

Koya-san cable car

Koya-san cable car

After our series of efficient trains and buses we transferred to the cable car which climbed through the forest at a precariously steep angle up to an elevation of 800 metres. The town’s bus was waiting for us and dropped us on a ghostly quiet street lined with temples – we had no idea which was ours. Feeling hopeful we approached the entrance of one of the attractive temples of shiny dark wood. A novice monk in flowing robes came to the door and we asked for Haryo-in, the temple we had booked for the night. He put on his wooden geta and indicated for us to follow as he clip-clopped his way across the road.

Oh. That’s Haryo-in? We stared at the shabby entrance way, decidedly less graceful than its lovely neighbours. You see, accommodation in Japan is expensive, and most of the temple stays cost about 23,000 yen (US$295) per couple per night whereas Haryo-in is a bargain 13,650 yen (US$175). Now we knew why.

As we walked through the cobweb-draped gateway into the overrun garden (very un-Japanese) a snake slithered in front of us. This didn’t seem a good omen.

Haryoin temple, Koya-san

It was eerily quiet but a Japanese lady did respond to our ringing of the bell and seemed to be expecting us. She spoke some English which made things easier as she took our bags and said we could come back to check in at 4pm. She also gave us an information sheet with the temple’s schedule. We had to be sure to check-in before 5pm as dinner was served at 5.30pm. The communal bath was open from 4-8pm, the temple doors would close at 9pm and it’d be lights out at 10pm. An early night was probably a good idea as the morning service was at 6.30am before breakfast the next day.

Exploring Koya-san

With five hours before check-in we set off to explore the strangely quiet town. After a vegetarian lunch at Bon On Shya café we strolled through the town, past shops selling sweet mochi and koya-dofu, a freeze dried tofu that comes from the area. Koya-san is surrounded by hills and the air is a little cooler than in Osaka – a blessing in summer. There are many temples you can visit but we focused on the two main areas – the Garan sacred precinct and the Okunoin Cemetery.

We had spent more than three weeks exploring Kyoto’s temples and shrines but the original temple complex at Koya-san, the Garan, was still impressive. Daito the humongous red pagoda dominated the smaller buildings around the peaceful complex. We watched a monk ringing a large bell over and over.

Garan sacred precinct, Koya-san

Garan sacred precinct, Koya-san

Koya-san’s main attraction is the huge and impressive Okunoin Cemetery. Thousands of tombs and Buddhist statues are found beneath giant cedar trees in an atmospheric forest. As we wandered along the quiet paths we came across a few odd “attractions”. One small wooden hut housed a large rock, which you try to lift through a window. If it’s heavy it means you are sinful. It was heavy.

In another spot we were instructed to look down a well. If we couldn’t see our reflection then we’d die within three years. We were a little nervous as we peered into the murky water far down below but thankfully saw our reflections.

Okunoin cemetery, Koya-san

Okunoin cemetery

Koya-san is small so it didn’t take us long to walk from the cemetery which is located at one end of town to the Daimon entrance gate on the other side. We then wondered how we’d fill up the rest of the time before check-in. It didn’t help when it began to rain.

The Trauma of Japanese Communal Baths

We rarely saw foreigners while we were in Kyoto, so were surprised to see about eight or so while walking around this small town. As we passed we analysed them for the likelihood that they’d be staying in our budget temple lodging. Our first communal bathing experience was looming and it freaked us out. Bathing naked with tourists that we’d then be chatting to over dinner just felt too weird. We devised a strategy – we’d take our bath early and hopefully have it to ourselves.

At 4pm sharp we checked in, donned our yukatas (cotton kimono) and hurried downstairs to the communal baths –one each for men and women. We had read up on bathing etiquette so knew the drill. You leave your clothes (yes, all of them) in a tray in an outer room and walk unadorned into the bathing area. Next you wash your body and hair at one of the showers (soap and shampoo are provided) before getting into the bath.

It was steaming hot and deliciously relaxing – for a moment. We couldn’t help worrying that someone could come in at any moment. We are so used to bathing being a private activity that the idea of sharing a bath with a stranger was difficult to get used to. The bath could fit four people but it would be a little close for comfort. We managed to endure the heat and nerves for as long as we could before getting out without meeting anyone else. Success!

We needn’t have worried. It turned out we were the only guests and we only saw one monk for the rest of the night. We had the temple to ourselves.

Our Temple Accommodation

Our biggest challenge over with we headed back to our room. The temple may not be as pristine as most we’ve visited but the main part does have character with a maze of corridors overlooking cute inner rock gardens. It’s not often that you return from a bath and meet a serene monk in saffron robes lighting incense and ringing bells.

Our room at Haryoin

Simon in a yukata in our room at Haryoin

The accommodation is in a rather unattractive concrete section with a long corridor of rooms and a row of sinks and toilets at one end. Our six tatami mat room wasn’t fancy but was better than we expected. It was very Zen, empty except for a low table, two cushions and a sacred alcove with a Buddhist statue, scroll and a place to light incense. Unlike some of the more fancy temples we didn’t get a garden view – our window looked over an iron railing and greenery covered embankment. Although the room wasn’t beautiful it was our first night staying in a temple so we were excited by the new experience. In our comfortable yukatas we sat on cushions to drink the green tea we’d been left and waited for the dinner bell.

Temple Dining

The dining room was another minimalist tatami space overlooking the inner garden. Our meal was waiting for us on red lacquer trays. The monk we’d seen earlier served us rice without saying a word and left us alone to eat.

Dining room at Haryoin

Dining room at Haryoin

We found every Japanese meal an adventure and this was no exception as we ate our way through the simple but fresh and tasty meal of rice, miso soup, Yudofu a mushroom and tofu hotpot, pickles, eggplant in a miso dressing, sweet black beans, and grapes. The meal didn’t quite compare to the complex flavours of the shojin ryori vegetarian meals we’d had in Kyoto, but this is probably due to the lower price we were paying. Other temples may have more extravagant feasts.

Dinner at Haryoin

Dinner at Haryoin

Koya-san shuts down at night so there was nothing left to do but return to our room and set up our bed for the night. In traditional Japanese accommodation you sleep on futons – thin mattresses that are stored away during the day and brought out to sleep on. We stacked up a few for added comfort and added the straw-filled pillows.

Morning Chanting

In the morning we were woken at 6am by a series of gongs and made it down to the main temple room for the morning ceremony. We had expected more monks but it was just us and the monk we’d met the previous day, although we still hadn’t spoken. We sat on the floor in a large tatami room facing into a neighbouring room which looked like a dusty antique shop full of golden Buddha statues and tall candle stands. The monk had a limp and it took him some time to move around the room lighting all of the candles.

When he was finished he sat on a large cushion amongst the Buddhas, facing away from us, and began to chant in a deep voice. Of course we couldn’t understand any of it but could follow the intonation. Sometimes he slowed to a conversational pace, sometimes becoming louder and more impassioned. His chanting was punctuated by hitting gongs, ringing hand bells and blowing into a wind instrument. The momentum built and things became even more exciting when he lit up a fire in front of him.

Morning service at Haryoin

Looking into the prayer room during the morning service

Another elderly monk entered the ceremonial room about half way through. Tardiness didn’t seem in keeping with the temple ethic, but this was an unusual temple. He sat quietly at one end, sometimes muttering to himself.

When the ceremony came to an end the elderly monk disappeared and the limping monk entered our room. Should we leave? Is there more? We waited, unsure.

The monk surprised us by talking for the first time. We had assumed he couldn’t speak English but although we struggled to follow everything he said he spoke it quite well. He told us the story behind his limp, how he had an aneurysm 14 years ago leaving him paralysed in one side and was told he’d never walk again. With determination he managed to though. I’m sure there is more to the story but unfortunately we couldn’t understand it all.

Breakfast was waiting for us in the dining room – a traditional meal of rice, miso soup, two types of seaweed, pickled plum, cold mushrooms in a marinade (surprisingly delicious) and cold lotus root and carrot.

Breakfast at Haryoin

Breakfast at Haryoin

It was still early but there wasn’t much to wait around for so we said goodbye to the monk and went on our way. It was a fascinating experience and one we’d recommend. If you can afford the more upmarket temples though you might want to splurge.

Trail Wallet

Have you stayed in a Japanese temple? Leave a comment and tell us about your experience.

78 thoughts on Sleeping with Monks: A Night in a Japanese Temple in Koya-San

  1. Fantastic piece about experiencing a life that many see in passing but never have the opportunity or knowledge to truly experience. I hope this encourages others to try out a similar stay in Japan. I know it does with me and makes me wish I had taken the option on my RTW ticket to visit Japan, despite all the troubles at the time.

    Greg

    • I think you just have to throw yourself into it! We were tempted to skip the baths but knew we’d feel bad if we did. We got lucky anyway and had them to ourselves!

  2. Communal bath sounded kind of nerve racking. But if you knew you had the place to yourself it could have been much more relaxing, or that’s how I pictured it through your (excellent) story telling. This was a great post, opened my eyes to an experience I rarely thought of before. Thank you.

    • It would have been so much more relaxing if we knew we had the place to ourselves! We feel kind of prudish freaking out about it so much but we grew up in such a completely different culture to Japan that it’s hard to get used to. Glad you enjoyed the post Cori!

  3. I’d really like to visit Koyasan when I’m in Osaka at the end of the month, but I think a temple stay is a bit out of my budget – as much as I’d like to do it!! Have you ever been to Korea? There are also temple stay programmes here, and they are SO much fun (though the morning chanting is usually around 4 AM, yikes!). I’ve been to two and am still looking at a third. Also, they’re only 50,000 won for a 2-day-1-night stay, which is something like $40!

    But they don’t come with yukatas and communal baths ;)

    • That sounds great Naomi! Good to know you can stay in a temple on a budget there. We haven’t visited Korea but will keep that in mind when we eventually get there. There used to be a hostel in Koya-san but I think the place we stayed is now the cheapest option, which is a bit crazy for budget travellers!

  4. What an amazing experience! The price seems quite high (especially for the more upmarket temples) but I think it’s totally worth it for this unique travel experience. Makes us want to go to Japan even more ;-)

  5. Sounds like quite an experience though the bathing doesn’t sound quite as relaxing as it’s supposed to be.
    Not so sure about the Japanese breakfast. I’d like fruit and not pickled veges first thing.

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  9. Fascinating post with a good dose of good information about staying in a Buddhist temple, which is on my bucket list. I really like the photos. They really help tell the story. I don’t know if you like to watch movies, if so, I highly recommend a German film called “Erleuchtung Garantiert” (“Enlightenment Guaranteed”) a funny, but poignant film about 2 brothers who journey from Berlin for a visit in a Japanese temple.

  10. Yeah Japan ain’t cheap unfortunately. But sounds like a very interesting experience. When I was in Japan few years back, we splurged to stay in one of the nice onsens (hot springs) for few nights, it was very nice, relaxing and loved it. Of course there was communal nude bathing, but being from Finland, for us it just seems very normal :) very relaxing

    • We heard good things about the onsens but it was too hot in the summer for them. If we go back at a cooler time we’ll have to get over the nude bathing thing and give them a try. You Europeans are much cooler about these things :)

    • That’s true. As it wouldn’t have been a bit deal for the Japanese, we would have felt silly worrying about it. Kind of glad we didn’t have to go through with it though!

  11. Awesome! I’m so glad to see reporting out of Japan – it’s been a while since I’ve seen a post. We love authentic experiences like this – and it looks like this one was worth the crazy amount of vehicles involved! Thanks for sharing your experience with us! -David

  12. Oh, Koya-sama! The best place we visited in Japan – by far!
    We stayed at Shojoshin-in (right next to Okuno-in) in our own hanare, it had its own traditional Japanese bath. Koya-san is small, but the cemetery is huge! Did you get through it all?? We barely made it half way down the main path before we had to turn back for dinner.

    I’m surprise you only saw a few people travelers. Despite the crazy amount it took to get there, there were more than we expected! Then again, we arrived mid-day. The next morning, there were very few.

    My husband proposed to me here, and, don’t tell him, that’s not my favorite part about the Koya visit! It’s simply amazing!!

    • I’m so pleased you enjoyed Koya-san too Andy. We did manage to get all the way to the end of the cemetery – it is huge isn’t it?

      We hardly saw any other tourists in Japan except for in Tokyo. It might be because the earthquake put people off last year, or because it was the summer.

  13. I’ve heard rumor of the Japan price tag, but I am always astounded at the numbers I hear from travelers. Great story. Japan is on my list, but not until I am done with China.

    • To be honest, when I look back I’m astounded by the numbers! When you are there you almost get used to it because it’s all relative, but now I can’t believe what we spent on accommodation in particular.

  14. Communal bathrooms…had a couple of those before in Spain, such a pain in the ass…either be so early or so late, to make the least interaction with people :D

    but sounds like you had a great experience…Buddhists seem to amuse me in so many ways, I have to see mroe of this culture than just read about it!

  15. Thank you for putting pictures it definitely gave me a better idea of the place and better understand the peacefulness that came with it. Also, I’m glad you guys saw your reflection looking down at the well!

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  17. ” Koya-san, the respectful name given to Mount Koya”

    Sigh. ‘San’ is the pronunciation of ‘mountain’ when paired with a name (‘mountain’ alone is yama, but ‘Mount Fuji’ is Fujisan). Koya-san means Mount Koya, that’s all. It’s not the same word as the respectful -san.

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  19. until i read this, i had the blessing of being the only american to stay overnite
    in the temple in bangkok area in 1976, returning there sept 29 2012 to find
    the wot, we had to get there in a boat taxi, cant remember the name i am now 73

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  21. You can find business hotels in Japan for about $60/night, which isn’t that bad. They’re small, but they have all that you need, and presumably you don’t want to spend a lot of time in your hotel room anyway. I would never pay over $200/night anywhere unless I had a big change in my financial situation, which isn’t particularly foreseeable.

  22. I have been to Koya San twice, the second time with my grown son in tow. Because the communal toilet facilities were a pain the first time around, on the second trip I splurged and found a temple, Sekishoin (right next to the cemetery) that had a tiny private bathroom. Made a great difference in “comfort.” The food tasted great, only it was always cold because they fixed it in the early afternoon for the 5:00 dinner. The entire area is unique in all of Japan. It’s very spiritual.

  23. I spent my years in Japan visiting temples. There are temples here in Japan that you could stay. A one year study in Hiroshima Bukkyou Gakkouin would make us understand the Beauty of Buddhism. Please feel free to visit my facebook account. Gasshou, sheryl mohri

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  26. Hey Erin and Simon!

    My husband and I are also traveling for a while and our next stop is Japan for 20 days in March.

    1) Re: “Sleeping with the monks”, would you reccomend this experience?

    2) As far as an itinerary goes, with the exception of Koyoto, I’ll be following your schedule. Since we will only have 20 nights, how long do you think we should plan to stay in kyoto?
    3) would you have done anything differently visiting the other cities- staying longer or skipping all together?

    4) Lastly, what areas did you cover with your 7 day JR pass?

    Thanks so much in advance for your time and help!

  27. I’m in love with Japan and when i stumbled your website now i’m in love with your page design also :) I really hope to end up in Japan soon, its very expensive for me right now :(

  28. Hi, just back from Japan and happened to see your blog. A great, reflective story – thanks for sharing!

    I just wanted to say, I can see how the shared bathing might seem daunting – but it is such a fantastic experience. It is not weird and if you can give it a go you will soon notice it is as natural as anything else in life. You wonder how you ever thought that being naked was not normal!

    :) Thanks again.

  29. I totally envy you for this experience. I am a fan of Japanese cuisine and culture and your trip sounds amazing. Thanks for your real and colorful story, reading it I felt like visiting the temple myself. Keep travelling and keep sharing!

  30. Pingback: Bedding Down with Buddhists, A Temple Stay in Koyasan, Japan - Till The Money Runs Out

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