Mount Koya featured

Temple Stay in Mount Koya

A trip to Japan is not complete without a visit to Mount Koya, the world headquarters of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. This town sits in an 800m valley between 8 mountain peaks – which makes the journey to get here half the fun. Home to a religious university, 120 temples and the largest graveyard in Japan, Mount Koya has a distinct spiritual and historic feel to it. There are no conventional hotels here of course – visitors stay in one of the many temple stays. Traditional, beautiful and old Japanese temple stays are run by the Monks and open for visitors. The food offered is in accordance with strict Buddhist dietary requirements and breakfast and dinner is both served at 6am and 6pm respectively.

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Image of Jimyoin Temple from Google Images

Inside the Temple

The rooms are Washitsu, traditional Japanese style rooms. These have tatami flooring – mats made of rice straw on the inside and covered with soft straw on the outside. Shoes are not worn inside the temple at all– when you arrive your shoes are left near the entrance area and a pair of traditional slippers will be your footwear during your stay throughout the temple. However even the slippers are not worn inside the rooms – these are left just outside the rooms and as the tatami flooring is soft and comfortable they are not needed at all.

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Photo Credit: Shinobu

The rooms have sliding wooden doors to enter and wardrobes inside with sliding doors to conceal the bedding. There is no furniture in the room apart from a small low table on which you can drink tea and some hangers for clothes. Futons are laid out by the monks at night time to sleep on – these soft foamy thin mattresses are surprisingly comfortable.

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Our room with the surprisingly comfortable futons laid out.

The windows are also sliding doors, and in our room opened up to a balcony type area with chairs and a table where you could sit and enjoy the beautiful, serene view over the Japanese garden whilst enjoying some green tea. The temple itself is incredibly quiet, the sliding doors ensure there are no banging noises of people opening and closing doors. The temples are usually set around beautiful Japanese gardens at the centre and you can also explore the main temple area itself where the monks worship.

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View from one side of our room

Morning Prayers

In the morning before breakfast is served guests are invited to Morning Prayer at 6am where you can observe the monks meditating in the temple. Incense sticks are lit, guests are seated silently still at the back and the monks meditate in a hypnotic melody, almost unaware of their audience. Our stay in April was quite chilly, especially in the temple area at 6am and watching our icy breath as we listened to the monks meditating was quite a beautiful but eerie experience.

The Food

Breakfast and dinner are served at the temple stays and the food is in strict accordance with Buddhist dietary requirements. As the food is all vegan it was a nice change to be able to try everything without worrying if it had pork or meat in it. The food is served in the rooms by the Monks who arrive with numerous trays on top of each other and proceed to lay out the food with exacting precision.

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Dinner is served!

If you’re willing to try everything I don’t think you can go hungry here with so much on offer – miso soup, green tea, tofu, mushrooms, vegetable tempura, noodles, pickles and other things I do not know the names of.

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Tempura Veg, tofu and greens.
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This was a fun way to eat – small portions of a variety of different food whilst seated on the floor with our food beautifully laid out and the serene view of the Japanese garden beyond in a tranquil environment – what could be better?

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Enjoying some tea on the comfortable tatami floor

The Onsen

The Onsen – traditional Japanese hot spring baths, are used in the temples by guests and monks alike. Separate facilities for men and women of course, the Onsen’s are great to do just after dinner for some evening relaxation before they get busy – I had the whole Onsen to myself! (Ali on the other hand was joined by a naked Monk who decided to take the opportunity to practice his English conversational skills with a less than enthusiastic recipient).

Surrounding Area

The town itself is great to explore – with a very simple one line bus route going in two directions it is incredibly easy to navigate and explore. Exploring on foot is great to get a feel of the town and watch young Buddhist boys on their morning ‘commute’ to their religious monk schools. There are numerous restaurants and cafes around the town – meat eaters in need of their animal fix will find some available in a few of these restaurants. The more traditional offer only strictly vegan food in compliance with Buddhist dietary requirements of course.

The Okunoin cemetery should be on every visitor’s to do list in Koya. The cemetery is home to the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi – the founder of Shingon Buddhism, headquartered in Koya. This is the largest cemetery in Japan with over 200,000 graves.

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The cemetery is as beautiful as it is eerie – set in a forest with towering ancient trees. Beautiful bridges, graves, mausoleums and statues adorn the cemetery.

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Dressed statues – slightly disturbing

It is recommended to also make a night time visit to the cemetery – something Ali used his Veto power against unfortunately (or fortunately).

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Enjoying the crisp air and beautiful view

For me, Mount Koya was the highlight of our trip. The bright lights and rush of Tokyo is amazing, but Koya presented the Japan I was in love with before even arriving.

The serenity, silence and beauty I experienced staying at the temple was like stepping into the un-spoilt past. It is always so hard to experience something authentic – free of pretentiousness or phony imitation. However staying at Jimyoin Temple offered just that. I spent hours on end in the simple tranquil room with the sliding window panels open looking out at the Japanese garden- in its last days of cherry blossom. Watching the Monks silently attending to the rooms and chores around the garden and temple in quiet contentment was both humbling and enviable. Sweeping the fallen leaves in the garden free from the futilities of materialism they looked richer than most.

  1. Thank you for the article. It is very nice. Could you tell me in what Temple did you stay. We are researching temples now and your looks really nice.

    All the best

    Candela

    1. Hi Candela thanks for your comment. We stayed at Jimyoin temple which was great. Hope you enjoy your trip and check out our two week itinerary suggestions!

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