03 Nov Bedding With Monks: Sleeping In A Buddhist Temple In Koyasan
I took off my yukata, and got dressed as fast as my just-woken-up-hands allowed. Still, cold crept up to my bones. But when you’re waking up at 6am in a Buddhist Temple, deep in the mountains, in Japan’s most sacred town of Koyasan, and you’re expected at the shrine for the morning ceremony, details like cold become irrelevant. And that’s saying something coming from me.
The day before, after taking a train from Osaka and a (very steep) cable car ride, we arrived at the mystical town of Koyasan. It’s not only its 117 temples clustered in such a small space what makes it mystical. It’s its mountainous surroundings, orange clad monks walking down the streets, its gray and nebulous glow, and the moss-covered cemetery where Kobo Daishi, the founder of Koyasan and Esoteric Buddhism is believed to be, not dead, but in eternal meditation.
Coming from Osaka, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Koyasan promised to be an entirely different experience. Not only sensory but also spiritually. And it delivered.
When we got to Ekoin, the shukubo (temple) where we were spending the night, we stood outside the wooden gate. If I’m honest, it intimidated me a bit. Traveling to Japan is so different from anything we’d ever experienced before. Etiquette is strict and the language barrier is tough, so I’m on constant watch, trying my best not to do anything to embarrass myself more than usual. I could only imagine all that could go wrong with me inside such a sacred place.
Monk Yuta welcomed us, and after going past a Japanese garden, taking off our shoes, and walking down wooden corridors framed by large windows looking out into the mountains, we got to our room.
Yuta opened the shōji (paper sliding-doors) and the most Japanese room I’d seen in “real life” appeared: tatami flooring, a tea table with cushions for sitting on the center of the room, a tokonama alcove decorated with a hanging scroll. Not that I’m particularly proud of this but I think I may have squealed a little in the presence of a Buddhist Monk. In my defense, though, the first time we were going to sleep in centuries-old type of room also happened to be inside a Buddhist monastery. For me, it didn’t get more special than this.
Just half an hour after arriving we took a meditation class upstairs in the Akijan Meditation Center. Monk Yuta explained why meditation is so important and why we should include it in our daily lives, regardless of our religion. He taught us how to sit, and the proper breathing technique.
I try to do yoga everyday and the meditation part is always the hardest for me. I can’t seem to get my restless mind to, you know, rest!
During the first twenty minutes everyone went into a quiet stupor- breathing in and out, counting to ten and then back to one. But around the half-hour mark, backs began to hurt, feet to itch, and bodies to shift. There was definitely a collective sigh of relief when Yuta came back and turned on the lights.
Koyasan is also famous for its food. Shoyin Ryori is vegetarian Buddhist cousine, and the only type of food Buddhist Monks are allowed to eat. Since it’s known for being fresh and delicious I couldn’t wait to try it.
Back in our rooms, we slipped into our traditional yukatas (summer kimonos) because it was getting colder. There was an evident change in temperature from Osaka to being so far up in the mountains of Koyasan.
A monk announced himself and slid the door carrying stacked trays of warm food, and he laid them beautifully on the floor. I didn’t know how it tasted but it was definitely a feast for the eyes.
There were a couple of dishes I recognized like miso soup, steamed rice, and tempura, but most of them were unknown and unheard of. I was hesitant to try them, being the picky eater that I am, but I found comfort in knowing that they were all vegetarian. The probability of something being gross greatly reduces when it’s all veggies.
Or so I thought…
There was a tofu dish that tasted worse than when Rachel makes her pie with meat. Not even Joey could eat it. The experience on its own, though, was one of a kind.
Night Walk to Okunoin Cemetery
There are only a couple of Shukubos in Koyasan that offer night walks to the cemetery, but I definitely recommend it. The best part about it was that Monk Yuta came with us, so we took the opportunity to learn as much from him as we could. Everything he said while taking a moonlit walk through Okunoin, the town’s cemetery, and the most revered site in Koyasan, was fascinating. Never in my life had I seen such syncretism of life and death. The forest, the mountains, and moss have covered every gravestone, monument, Torii gate, and statue along the cobblestone walkways.
Most of the gravestones have a 5-level figure on top, each one of its components representing earth, water, fire, wind, and sky. These five elements combined with consciousness are what the entire universe is made up of.
Every aspect in this house of death is meant to also celebrate life. Just like in Japanese religion, the mix of Buddhism and Shinto where Buddhism honors death, while Shinto celebrates life.
Torodo Hall, where Kobo Daishi ascended into eternal meditation, is lit by more than 10,000 lanterns. It’s a place so sacred that taking pictures is not allowed. Yuta recited a sutra in the night while we made a wish.
After the next morning’s ceremonies, since we still hadn’t walked around town, we decided to stay another night. The tourist center helped us book accommodation in another shukubo: Jufukoin.
No one spoke English here. There were only two other guests and they were also Japanese. I did feel a little out of place, I’m not going to lie. But that feeling of being out of our comfort zone made it even more real.
Our room had garden views and the food, I must say, was better than at Ekoin. This temple didn’t offer meditation or Sutra copying classes so we stayed in our room and went to bed straight after dinner.
The morning ceremony at Jufukoin was beautiful in a candle and incense-lit shrine. The monks recited sutras while the other two Japanese guests prayed and Isaac and I occasionally looked at each other feeling like we didn’t really belong, but that’s exactly what made it so right.
Embarrassing Myself In Front of a Buddhist Monk
We had breakfast at the common room, as we’d been told. What I definitely wasn’t expecting was that Monk Kishi would kneel next to us, and for the duration of the breakfast wouldn’t do anything but stare at us while we ate.
Have I mentioned how incompetent I am with chopsticks? Saying breakfast was embarrassing would not even begin to cover it. I successfully, in my own typical fashion, managed to get rice all over my leggings, drop a pickled ginger to the floor, and send a carrot tempura flying across the room right along with my dignity. What Monk Kishi thinks of me now, I dare not know.
Sacred mountains, beautiful temples, and hidden forests make up this town. It’s stunning. Temple after temple after temple and you still can’t get enough. All of them are worth visiting but my favorites were Konpon Daito, Kondo, and Tohoto In Kongo sanmai-in.
With so much life surrounding them, so carefully and artfully built, with a history so rich, interesting and defining for Esoteric Buddhism, Koyasan is a place full of history, spirituality, and preserved culture.
A place that feels more “Japan” than any city ever could.
Once in Koyasan Station you can hire a taxi or take a bus to the city center.Koyasan Station – Town Centre (Bus): ¥ 830 (1-Day Bus Pass)
The Koyasan Tourist Information Center can help you find accommodation once in Koyasan or you can book in advance through Japanese Guest Houses.
We stayed at Ekoin, which can also be booked directly through the website, and Jofukoin which we booked through the Koyasan Tourist Information Center.