During our stay in Kyoto we planned to step away for an overnight excursion to “KoyaSan” or “Mt. Koya”.
Koyasan is a very small, secluded Buddhist temple town built on Mount Koya, and can only be travelled to via cable car after around an hour and a half hour journey from Kyoto by train.
The reason we were so interested in Koyasan was for its traditionalism and religious culture, despite not being religious ourselves. It is known to be one of the best places to experience an overnight stay at a Shukubo, or “temple lodging”, where travellers can immerse themselves in a true monk’s lifestyle, attend morning prayer, and be served traditional vegetarian dishes typically served daily at Shukubo, and eaten by the monks themselves.
We stayed at Souji-in Shukubo, which was very conveniently located only a short walk from the bus park, which is a necessity to get you from the cable car to the centre of Koyasan itself (dangerous windy roads with no pavements on entry), as well as small restaurants, and a local grand temple.
The Shukubo itself welcomes guests from 2:30pm onward, so if you arrive before this time I would recommend eating at one of the local eateries which offer really tasty but quite standard Japanese dishes (ramen, sushi, you know the drill).
Once the Shukubo was all set to welcome us, off we headed to get acquainted with the monks and be introduced to their way of life!
Our room at the Shukubo was once again a traditional single room, however it was much larger than any of the ryoken we had stayed in so far, and even came with it's own balcony overlooking the Shukubo grounds.
I remember it so clearly. The sun was really hazy and warm, there was absolutely no sound at all in the air, and my legs were utterly destroyed from the journey so far. I had never really had to navigate such a distance before and it was starting to very annoyingly take its toll on my body, but if I'm honest, I think this particular pit stop is exactly what I needed.
What to expect from the Shukubo lodgings:
The monk's hospitality was literally second to none that I have ever experienced from anyone ever in my entire life (in relation to staying in a hotel or somewhere like that). You've never seen wider smiles in your life! They were immaculately dressed in their robes, spoke very little English, however managed exceptionally well to communicate perfectly with English language flash cards. Please respect this if you ever find yourself in such an establishment. You are more in their "home" now than simply being a tourist in a hostel or something. Open mind!!
You're staying under the roof of a very tight ship. Not for you personally, as you literally need not lift a finger in as far as your own welfare is concerned here - The Monks do EVERYTHING. You have all of your meals (dinner and breakfast) served in your room, and your beds are made by the monks whilst you literally sit and watch them glide in and out again in a flash. You must understand though that they "work" to a very strict time throughout the day, and you do need to fit around that.
Your dinner WILL be served at 6pm, and your bed WILL be made within half an hour of you finishing it. The same goes for your wake up and breakfast in the morning.
If you can wake at 5:30am to experience mass, then you must do so but NOT wearing your yukata (you must be fully dressed, but no shoes of course). Your beds are then strictly put away at 8am, and breakfast will be served promptly after - ALWAYS with that huge smile. Never anything less.
Anyone who doesn't appreciate this kind of timing or rigidity to their experience should not consider staying. I don't seriously know why this kind of thing would offend anyone, as you're literally in a culture infused paradise, however I would hate to think that people would complain in any way to such a kind and gentle order of people that they can't have a lie in.
The one thing out of this which was truly hard to deal with for me though, was feeling like the monks were waiting on me. I wanted to help them! I felt so bad just sitting on the floor whilst they floated around me setting up my needs and such! It was so darn hard! The thing is, this is what they revel in as people. Hospitality toward others. They see your stay as a privilege and an honor to serve you. Please allow them to do so, quietly. It's a respect thing! Comes for free from you, right?
If you can't cope without your meat dishes for 24 hours then you might not be too pleased...however you WILL because the vegetarian dishes served were not only utterly gorgeous to look at, but the flavours and combinations were fantastic.
Once again it's a traditional Kaiseki dining experience, with multiple courses of small, intricate dishes laid out in a precise order. I believe there were around 8-10 courses here at this Shukubo, so do prepare to go to bed with a very full and happy tummy.
If there's any course you don't particularly like, no one's offended or anything, just enjoy the experience.
PLEASE NOTE that the dishes are heavily based around Soy. If you have a sensitivity then you must alert the Shukubo before you book to ensure they know how to accomodate you.
Things To Do In Koyasan.
In my opinion, the key thing to do in Koyasan is relax and breathe in the surroundings and tradition. It's such a pristine and spiritual location, and regardless of you faith or beliefs, you will feel the ultimate calm.
In terms of sights if you have some walk-about time, there are two places which especially stand out to recommend.
GARAN - The Giant, red Pagoda.
Garan is Koyasan's central temple complex. It houses two primary buildings: the Kondo Hall and the huge Konpon Daito Pagoda.
The Kondo Hall is a large wooden temple hall where major ceremonies are held, and enshrines an image of Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha of medicine and healing.
Besided the Kondo Hall stands the vermilion Konpon Daito Pagoda, a two tiered, vibrant red pagoda. The central Buddha in Shingon Buddhism stands in the middle of the pagoda's interior and is surrounded by other art and statue figures which together make up a rare three dimensional mandala. Ultimately fascinating!!
You can hear ceremonial gongs sounding out from Garan throughout the day in accordance with the rituals of the local Monks.
It costs only 200Yen to enter (£1.50).
Possibly one of he most popular tourist attractions in Koyasan, Okunoin is the site of the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism and one of the most highly revered people in the religious history of Japan.
Story has it that instead of having died, Kobo Daishi went into a state of rest in eternal meditation as he awaits Miroku Nyorai (Maihreya), the Buddha of the Future, and provides relief to those seek it from him whilst he "waits".
You can arrange night tours of the graveyard which sound utterly incredible if you want to absorb the ambiance of the area in all of its atmospheric glory, however whilst we were there, the tours were nowhere to be seen. Perhaps they are seasonal (we went in October).
Next stop in the 'Japan Diaries': Hakkone National Park, and Owakudani.
Zen garden views from Souji-in Shukubo.