Staying in a Buddhist Temple in Mount Kōya, Japan (What to Expect)
Traveling Back to the Future in Japan
Mount Kōya is a peaceful Buddhist temple settlement located in the mountains of Wakayama Prefecture. This sacred town is located two hours south of both Nara and Osaka and is the ideal place to find peace.
During my time in Mount Kōya, we had the opportunity to stay in a Japanese Buddhist temple, attend two meditations with monks, savor delicious vegetarian dishes and stay in our second ryokan. (Click here to read my blog post on my first experience staying in a traditional Japanese ryokan in Hakone.)
Discover what to expect when you book a stay at a traditional Buddhist temple in Japan.
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Traditional Buddhist Temple in Mount Kōya:
Driving to Mount Kōya was absolutely breathtaking. As we drove up the windy roads of the mountains, we experienced stunning views of lush greenery that Asia is famous for. It was dreamy! While we continued to make our way up the mountain, we started to spot some sacred sites; temples and we also got to drive through Mount Kōya’s downtown area, which reminded me of Kyoto’s Gion district.
In Mount Kōya, you are able to spend a night in a Koyasan, which is the best place to experience an overnight stay at a Buddhist temple. It is here where you could get a taste of a Buddhist monk’s lifestyle, indulge in shojin ryori (vegetarian monk cuisine) and attend morning and evening meditations. There are around 50 temples in Mount Kōya that offer this service; one of them being Rengejoin Temple, which is the temple we stayed in.
When we approached Rengejoin Temple, I could tell right away it was a place of peace and worship. There were beautiful gardens that surrounded the entire temple, traditional Japanese architecture, serene ponds with Koi and painted sliding paper doors.
Entering the Temple:
When you first get to the temple doors, it is important that you first take off your shoes since it is seen as highly disrespectful to walk around with them on, especially in a place of worship.
Just outside of the temple doors are little cubby-like shelves where you could store your shoes during your stay at the temple. They are fully covered so that your shoes don’t get wet if it rains. Instead, the temple will provide you with plastic sliding shoes to walk around in. I will admit that they are rather comfortable.
Another thing to note about wearing shoes in a Buddhist temple is that it is required to be completely barefoot when you enter your ryokan, the dining area as well as the actual temple where you pray. There is a space outside of all of these rooms where you could store them.
In addition to not wearing shoes, you also cannot bring large suitcases into the temple. You can, however, bring a large duffle bag or backpack for your stuff. In our case, we had a private coach, so we were able to leave our large luggage on the bus for that night. If you aren’t traveling via private coach or car, I would suggest calling ahead of time to see where you could store your luggage. I just packed my essentials, laptop, pajamas and an outfit for the next day in my backpack and was able to survive.
Rengejoin Temple offers both private and group-style ryokans. Since I was traveling with a larger group, I shared a room with a few other girls on my trip. Just like in Hakone, we were given mattress pads, a small pillow filled with rice and a large comforter to sleep with. The only downside to this ryokan was that the mattress pad was a lot thinner than the one from Hakone, so it was a bit uncomfortable and I didn’t really get a good night’s rest.
Inside of the rooms is also a small table on the floor with decorative pillows to enjoy some morning or afternoon tea. There is also Wi-Fi, however, it is quite slow. (Click here to learn about Japan’s VPN services.) Please note that since paper walls separate all of the rooms, it is very easy to hear almost everything! So please be considerate of others.
Also, it could get a bit eerie at night because you could easily see shadows from the paper walls. If someone gets up in the middle of the night and roams the hallways, their shadow is very present, so try not to freak out LOL. In addition, you could also lock your sliding doors. (Everyone who stays at the temple are trustworthy and Japan as a whole is super safe, but if it makes you sleep better at night, you have the option to lock it.)
When it comes to the bathrooms, there is a shared bathroom that is separate for both men and women and there is also a private bathhouse for both genders. Unfortunately, you don’t have your own bathroom and shower at the temple. The bathhouse is similar to when you go to an onsen spring. You cannot enter the public path with clothes on and you must wash your body thoroughly before you enter. In addition to the bath, there are also saunas and steam rooms for you to enjoy.
When we first arrived at Rengejoin Temple, which was later in the afternoon, we were told that there was an evening meditation that we could attend. Since I am a yoga teacher, of course I hopped on this opportunity. Being able to participate in mediation with Buddhist monks has always been a dream.
After settling into our ryokan, we walked through the beautiful grounds that are surrounded by gardens, ponds and nature to the main temple area. When we got to the temple, we were required to take our plastic shoes off and walk in without making any noise.
One thing I highly advise doing before entering the temple to mediate with the monks is leaving all electronics in your ryokan. Since it is quiet and dark in the temple, a vibrating phone sounds very loud and even with your mobile device facing down, you could still see it light up when you get a notification. If you do bring your phone inside the temple and it goes off, it is seen as highly disrespectful. I also do not suggest taking photos as well.
In Rengejoin Temple, the monks practice Zen Buddhism, which originated in China during the Tang dynasty as Chan Buddhism. Back in the day, it was strongly influenced by Taoism. Zen Buddhism is a way of vigilance and self-discovery, which is practiced while sitting with your legs crisscross, with a straight back. It is the experience of living from moment to moment and in the present. Practicing Zen meditation could be hard because it is so temping to move around and get distracted, but once you implement meditation into your daily routine, it is one of the best feelings!
Our meditation lasted 45 minutes, which ended up going by quickly, and then the head monk spoke to us about the temple and its practices. He spoke English fairly well and was very informative. In addition, the temple itself was beautiful! There were lanterns hanging everywhere, the walls were beautifully decorated and incense filled the air. If you suffer from asthma, you may have an issue being in there because the incense could be a bit overpowering.
In addition to our evening meditation, we also had the opportunity to participate in a morning meditation. The morning prayer took place at 6am, so we had to wake up fairly early for it. Since I couldn’t sleep that well, getting up for meditation was no problem! During this mediation, the monks dedicated it to those who have passed away in our lives. We were all able to go up one by one to the head monk and practice a Buddhist ritual that is dedicated to our love ones who are no longer with us. It was very beautiful and enlightening.
Last year during my time in Thailand, I also had the opportunity to participate in a Q&A with a Buddhist monk. Click here to read about that amazing experience from Chiang Mai.
Since vegetarianism is implied in the Buddha’s teaching, all meals at Rengejoin Temple are vegetarian. For both breakfast and dinner, we were served green tea, miso soup, white rice, various tofu dishes, seafood and vegetable tempura as well as marinated seaweed.
Even though the food is tasty and healthy, most people on my trip didn’t find it to be filling enough. One thing I suggest doing before you get to the temple is stopping at a rest stop on the way to pick up snacks. The Japanese rest stops have some amazing options! You could get onigiri, which is a Japanese rice ball (sometimes covered in seaweed) filled with salmon, tuna or other fish; inari, which is a tofu-wrapped rice cake; sashimi, which is raw fish; Japanese fried chicken and cold cut sandwiches. They also have so many great snack options too, such as chocolate dipped bread sticks! During your time in Mount Kōya, you could also head into the downtown area and grab food at a restaurant or convenient store (7-Eleven is the primary convenient store in Asia). Please be aware though that the temple has a curfew. If you come back after 8pm, you will have a tough time trying to get back in.
After we checked out of Rengejoin Temple the next day, we explored Okunoin Cemetery and Temple. Known as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and popular pilgrimage spot, Okunoin is the site of the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi who is the founder of Shingon Buddhism and is a significant person in Japan’s religious history. In Buddhism, Kobo Daishi hasn’t died; instead, he is believed to rest in eternal meditation as he awaits Miroku Nyorai, the Buddha of the Future, while also providing relief to those who ask for salvation.
Before you enter Okunoin Cemetery, everyone should bow to pay respect to Kobo Daishi before crossing the Ichinohashi Bridge. Across the bridge is the cemetery that has over 200,000 tombstones lined up that lead to Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum. Known as the largest cemetery in Japan, there are some rather beautiful and interesting tombstones that you will find as you stroll deeper into the mystical woods.
After walking through the Cementary, you will eventually find the Gobyonohashi Bridge that leads to the Temple. Once again, all visitors should bow to Kobo Daishi before crossing over. At this point, all food, drinks and photography are prohibited. Just like in Kyoto, I was disappointed that I couldn’t take photos because the Temple was absolutely stunning! In fact, it was probably one of the most beautiful temples I visited in Japan.
A few feet past the Bridge is the Miroku Stone. Visitors are challenged to lift the stone from the cage’s lower platform to an upper platform with only one hand. It is said that the stone is lighter to good people and heavier to bad people. I really wanted to give this a try, but the line was way too long.
Another important site to visit in Okunoin is the Torodo Hall, which is also known as the “Hall of Lamps”. The Torodo Hall is Okunoin’s main hall for worship and is built in front of Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum. Inside the hall are more than 10,000 lanterns, which were donated by worshipers. They are kept eternally lit. It is absolutely beautiful!
Click here to discover how to book a stay in a Buddhist temple.
I hope you all enjoyed learning about what to expect when you stay at a Buddhist temple in Mount Kōya. I definitely think this is something everyone should experience if they travel to Japan. If you have any questions about my time in Mount Kōya or my trip to Japan in general, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, contact me via social media or leave a comment below.
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