Welcome to Koyasan and probably a place you have never heard of. As I mentioned before I wanted an unusual trip so this took some researching. I came across an article that mentioned you could stay with monks in their temple and was instantly hooked. Mount Koya is an area that houses multiple temples that offer this service – stay the night, eat among the monks and witness morning ceremonies. It is a community located high up in the mountains of Koyasan and is pretty isolated from suburbia. There are several sites that offer help with booking this kind of ‘excursion’ so just do some research (I pretty much organised it all myself).
If you’re going to do this then you have to invest. To start with, getting there is a pain and takes several hours. We took trains, buses, subways and a vernacular. The price isn’t included in your JR Pass so it will come out of pocket but again you’re paying for the experience. We loaded up on gyoza’s at the station and started the journey. The vernacular at the end was my favourite part as I love those and it gets you high up into the mountain range. At the top there are buses that drive you through the little village and drop people off at their respective lodgings.
We stayed at the Shojoshin-in Temple (one of the largest temples there and a huge estate). A man checked us in and gave us a tour of the bathrooms, main hall, prayer area etc. Our room was upstairs in the annex and adorable. It felt like something out of a Studio Ghibli movie that you only dream about. Compared to the hustle bustle of Tokyo and Kyoto, it was really nice to getaway and refocus. Timing is very strict and food, the ceremony etc. always start and end on time so definitely pay attention. Our temple had an onsen which is basically a giant, communal bath that is scorching hot. There are certain rules when using it like showering first, three people max at a time and no products inside. When I went no-one joined me so it was very relaxing being alone in this ‘steam room meets jacuzzi’. The rest of the time we read, had a mini photoshoot and enjoyed our very own tea ceremony.
A definite highlight were the food and meal times. Dinner was very promptly served at half five and was strictly vegan. I’ll be honest that half of the dishes I had no idea what they were but it was really delicious and a welcomed change. A monk in training came by to drop off tea, rice and hot soups and then left us alone to enjoy. There were vegetables, tofu, tempura, and the hot dishes. You can see I’m rocking my complimentary yukata (low-key kimono/pyjamas) and loved every second of it. The last photo is of breakfast which featured fruit, some tofu cake thing and more soup.
There isn’t a lot to do in Koyasan itself. There are a few token shops and you can always browse the other temples I guess. The main ‘showstunner’ would be Okunoin Cemetery. People pay millions to be buried here as Kobo Daishi, found of Shingon Buddhism, is buried here. It is considered a very holy and sacred place with many pilgrimages happening here. The graveyard goes on for miles and is a really beautiful walk (is that a weird thing to say?).
I personally think you only need one night here but I guess everyone feels and desires different things. I enjoyed the slower-pace and getting to see a different aspect of Japan. We got woken up at five in the morning to witness the morning ceremony. I didn’t document it as it felt disrespectful to do so but again it was very powerful. To be invited to witness it I felt very lucky and will cherish that memory.
If you missed the previous Japan posts you can check them out here. After being away at Koyasan I craved some technology and so we headed to Osaka! Don’t miss out in a few days!