My favorite part of our trip to Japan was visiting Mt. Koya, the epicenter of Shingon Buddhism. Kukai (Kobo Daishi) developed the secluded temple town of Koyasan back in the 9th century. Koyasan is surrounded by 8 mountain peaks, representing the 8 pedals of a lotus. The lotus is one of the Eight Auspicious Symbols in Buddhism and an important symbol in the religion.
I first found out about Koyasan when researching pilgrimages after I walked Camino de Santiago. Koyasan is the beginning and end point for the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage. We didn’t get to do any hiking or explore the trail network in Koyasan, but I’m hoping to return soon. We did get to stay overnight in a Buddhist temple though, and that’s what made this journey to Koyasan the highlight of our trip.
Temple lodgings are known as shukubo in Japan, and there are over 50 shukubo in the vast temple network of Koyasan offering overnight stays to visitors. We booked our stay at Muryoko-in. According to the Muyoko-in website, “Muryōkoin was founded by the fourth son of Shirakawa Emperor, Prince Gakuhō Shinō (1092-1153) during the Heian-Period. He became a monk and first abbot of Muryōkoin”. The temple is dedicated to Amida, a celestial Buddha. Amida is also called “The Buddha of Immeasurable Life and Light”, and Muryoko-in means immeasurable light.
Julia and I arrived at Muryoko-in at 16:00 and were promptly greeted by two monks who were sitting in the shukubo office. They were the senior members of the temple, and spoke really good English. One younger monk arrived from down the main hallway to show us to our room and walk us through the temple rules. The first bit of instruction was a repeat of our Ryokan, and involved the use of slippers in the temple. We left our shoes in the shoerack in front of the temple, and I crammed by size 12 feet into the largest slippers they had (maybe a size 8).
Our shukubo guide monk then gave us a quick tour to let us know where the restrooms were and proceeded down the wooden hallway towards the living quarters. As we approached our room, I was blown away by the beautiful garden views from inside of Muryoko-in.
We took a final turn towards the last hallway in the building when our guide informed us “your room is here”. Full length glass sliding doors were on my left with views out to the garden. To my right, a series of wooden sliding doors for the 5 available rooms in Muryoko-in. Beneath me, a hallway of red wooden boards. Everything around me felt foreign, but at the same time, so inviting. The monk opened the sliding door to our room, and my mind was awash with the beauty and elegance found in the simplicty and minimalism of temple dwellings. I took my slippers off and walked into the room on the soft tatami mats. Our room was in the middle of the hallway, so we had two fusuma sliding doors as partitions to the other rooms.
There was hot green tea waiting for us on the low table in the middle of the room. The monk turned on a heater in the back corner of the room, which was a welcome site with the evening forcast expected to be 27 degrees Fahrenheit.
After drinking our tea, Julia and I sat down to relax before our 17:30 dinner. My restless mind didn’t keep me seated for long though, and after about 20 minutes, I was up exploring the temple and our quarters.
At 17:30, a monk came and knocked on the sliding door to our room to ask if we were ready for dinner. Julia and I both gave an enthusiastic “yes”. In the shukubo of Koyasan, guests are served Shojin-Ryori. Eating like a monk means vegetarian meals and maintains the simplicity and minimalism found throughout the monastery. After 1 or two minutes, the monk returned with a stack of five trays covered in plates and bowls. He layed them out before us, bowed, and slipped out through the sliding doors. I started with a little rice, miso, and tempura vegetables, before moving on to some of dishes I’d never eaten before. In one of the bowls was a cold sticky bun in cold water. It was strange to take a bit of the bun, only to have my mouth fill up with more water than the volume of my oral cavity could handle. It was a strange but pleasant sensation. For the rest of the dishes, I didn’t know all of the ingredients, but I was familiar with the flavors and textures. Overall, it was a very nice meal. I don’t know if I’d be able to eat Shojin-Ryori on a daily basis, but for a night spend in a temple, it was great.
After Julia and I had finished dinner, the monk came back to our room to stack the trays and take them away. He then informed us that the onsen (hot tub) was available, and proceeded to show us the basket with towels and yukatas. Julia decided to skip the hot tubs, but I was ready for a nice dip. I put on my yukata and ventured out into the now dark hallway where the temperature felt every bit as cold as the 27F forecast was projected to be. After a rinse in the shower and a nice soak in the onsen, I made it back to the room and was pretty much asleep on arrival. My last effort was to set my alarm for 5:50. In the morning, we would be joining the monks in the temple to witness their prayers before lunch.
We woke up before my alarm sounded and bundled up before heading out into the chilly hallway. The sun had yet to rise, but the sky was showing the colors of what was soon to come. Part of the prayer ritual included the writing of requests on wooden sticks that were thrown into the fire during the chanting. There were around 20 monks taking part in the morning prayers, with all of them Japanese except for the monk throwing sticks in the fire. He was from Germany. We found this out later as he came to speak wit us during breakfast.
Words cannot describe the beauty and allure of Buddhist chants. If you’ve never heard them before, do a quick search on YouTube or Spotify. We didn’t know how long the morning prayer session was going to be, and lost track of time while we were in the temple. It was strange how time seems to disappear when in the trance of such spiritual proceedings. The morning prayer ceremony lasted 90 minutes, and at its end, we returned to our rooms to reflect and wait for breakfast at 8:00.
Unlike dinner which was served in our rooms, breakfast was served in a common room. There were actually two common rooms, which seemed to be divided East and West, as we were paired with a couple from France and a family from Mexico. Like dinner, the breakfast was also Shojin-Ryori.
After leaving prayer I was zenned out and in a zone. It’s a bit hard to explain, as I’m not a practicing Buddhist, but I just felt such a sense of peace and tranquility at the temple. It was hard to believe our short stay was coming to an end. Looking back, I wish I would have planned two nights at the temple. I would have really like to spend another day among the monks and to explore the other temples in Koyasan. Alas, vacation time is finite. Fortunately, we take our memories and mindset with us wherever we go. The beauty of travel is that we know places like this can exist, and that we can travel there in body if we’re lucky, but we can always travel there in mind. I find myself going back to that temple daily, and I take the teachings with me wherever I go.