Have you read my first Japan post yet? Days 1 & 2 in Osaka can be found here.
When planning our trip to Japan our aim was to see as much of Japan as we could. One thing we all really wanted to do was to go to a Buddhist temple, so we thought we’d go one further and actually stay at one. I did a lot of research on Japan Guide, which is such a useful website if you’re planning on visiting Japan. We discovered that there were a lot of temples on Mount Koya and that it was one of the best places to experience an overnight stay at a temple, with over 50 temples offering the service to visitors.
We left our Airbnb apartment in Osaka at around 9am and started the journey to Mount Koya. As we had big suitcases, we first travelled to Namba station to drop them off, as we knew that there was a suitcase hold there that wasn’t very expensive. Here we had a quick (and tasty) breakfast of egg and avocado rolls at Dotour, a popular chain restraurant in Japan.
The journey from Namba to Mount Koya sounded complicated; two trains, a cable car and a bus, but we actually found it relatively easy to navigate. Due to the really nice weather (which lasted the whole time we were in Japan), the train ride through the countryside was really pleasant with really pretty views.
The cable car takes you up the mountain, where at the bus station, you are allocated a bus which takes you to your chosen temple. We were dropped outside our temple at around half past three in the afternoon, we would have been there earlier but due to stopping in Namba for food, we were slightly later than expected. It felt a lot colder up on the mountain and we definitely didn’t dress warm enough!
We were staying at Shojoshin-in, a temple I found on Japanese Guest Houses. It was situated right next to the Ichinohashi Bridge, the entrance of the famous Okunoin Cemetery. It’s apparently one of the oldest temples on Mount Koya and was situated next to a few small gift shops. For this accommodation we had to pay on arrival and it cost 12,343¥ per person (around £70), this included dinner and breakfast.
When booking the temple, you are told that if you’re not there by 5pm, then your booking will be cancelled. As it’s a working Buddhist temple, they have to stick to their routines and can’t wait around for guests. You are also warned that it’s not like a hotel and you’re kind of left to your own devices, which was completely fine for us.
The entrance to the temple was really easy to find. You’re provided slippers to wear throughout the hallways (but don’t wear them into any of the rooms!) and the reception room was situated right at the front.
The monks were really friendly and helpful and checked us in and then showed us to our rooms and gave us a quick tour so we knew where all the facilities were. We had booked two double rooms, which were on the first floor.
Our rooms were incredibly cosy and welcoming, with everything we needed for a good nights stay. On the floor when you walked in was two futon beds, behind these was a little room divided by sliding doors with a table and cushions to sit on. In a box on the table was green tea and traditional Japanese sweets. Although the rooms didn’t have en-suites, they did have a small room near the back with a sink and mirror. We also had a balcony that looked over the temple’s beautiful garden and the room was decorated with loads of Japanese art and origami.
The rooms didn’t have lockable doors, just Japanese sliding doors (fusuma), so you are provided with a safe for all your valuables. There was even a TV and Wi-Fi, so it’s wasn’t completely traditional!
Around the corner from our rooms were three toilet cubicles, each with an electriconic Japanese toilet in (which I was pretty surprised about!), then opposite was a set of stairs which led down to the baths.
Before going to dinner, which was served at half 5, we decided to walk through Okunoin Cemetery, which was about 100m from the temple. Okunoin Cemetery is the largest cemetery in Japan with over 200,000 tombstones and contains graves for a lot of historical characters, including prominent monks and lords. The 2km path eventually leads to Torodo Hall and Kobo Daishi’s Mausoleum, but we didn’t get quite that far due to time.
We got about three quarters of the way through the cemetery and then turned back. If we had realised how close we had got to the end then we would have kept going, but we were conscious about getting back in time for dinner!
Once back at the temple we went upstairs and dropped off our stuff and went to where everyone had to meet for dinner. As there was four of us, we had our own room for dinner which was pretty cool. Any less people and you share a large room, with other people, divided by screens.
One of the monks showed us to our room and sat us down in front of some small tables on the floor, about 2 minutes later a couple more monks brought in a pot of green tea and a big bowl of rice to share.
We each had three small tables in front of us which were filled with lots of small bowls and plates of food and the way it was presented was really aesthetically pleasing. The food was what the Buddhist monks would traditionally cook and eat which is based on Shojin Ryori, a type of Japanese vegetarian cooking. Shojin basically means the path to enlightenment and Shojin Ryori is another way of a Buddist monk to show his devotion to the religion. This cooking style takes into account the balance and colours in a meal and each meal must have a balance of 5 different colours and 5 different flavours, it also doesn’t make use of flavours that are too strong like garlic and onion.
Our meal consisted of a number of dishes – ginger soup, a selection of fruit, boiled daikon, a selection of pickled items, tempura vegetables, miso soup with tofu, koyadofu (freeze dried tofu in soy sauce), sticky Japanese rice, adzuki beans (Japanese red beans), a small bowl of some kind of seaweed and some steamed mushrooms. I tried everything and it was all really nice, although I wasn’t a fan of the koyadofu, it was such a strange taste which I wasn’t used to.
After dinner we went back up to our rooms and relaxed, as we were so tired from travelling and jet lag. The baths were open between a certain time frame, so we all took it in turns to use them, we didn’t have to wait for anyone else staying in the temple, so it was fine. There were two small bath rooms downstairs, one for men and one for women and each had a changing area, shower and large bath which was kept at a certain heat and was continuously flowing with water.
I’m not exaggerating when I say it was the best bath I’ve ever had. As with every bath in Japan, you are expected to shower before getting in. The bath was really deep, so the water came up to my shoulders pretty much and it was kept at a constant hot temperature. In our rooms were yukata, Japanese robes to put on after getting out of the bath.
Part of the temple experience was waking up early to watch the monks morning prayers, so we went to bed pretty early that night.
Day 2 – Exploring Mount Koya and travelling to Kyoto
After a really good sleep, we woke up at 5am, so we could pack and then go down to watch the prayers at 6am.
All the guests met downstairs and were sat on benches facing the shrine and where the monks did their prayers. It was mainly a lot of chanting, which was very similar to what we heard at the temple in Osaka and it lasted around 40 minutes. It was such a good experience and was really mesmerising to watch, but next time I will dress a lot warmer (it’s very cold at 6am on Mount Koya!).
After prayers we were served breakfast. It was served in the same room as dinner and was very similar to what we had eaten the night before, but this time we had a different type of tofu (wasn’t a fan of that either) and instead of red azuki beans we had some sweet white beans. We also had nori and soy sauce to go with our boiled rice and were given umeboshi (pickled plums). I had never had umeboshi before and I don’t think I ever will again, not to my taste at all! All the green tea we drank warmed us up and we were ready to go explore Mount Koya and then make the journey to Kyoto.
On the way out, we had a quick look at the temple’s beautiful Japanese garden that we could see from our balcony.
We then checked out of the temple, gave our thanks to the monks and walked up the road towards the main part of the town. Mount Koya is a small secluded town filled with temples and is the centre of Shingon Buddhism. The town is incredibly fascinating and I could have walked around it for hours. Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay all day, as it was quite a journey to Kyoto.
As you walk up the road there are so many temples, some working temples and some done out like museums. We walked in a few to take photos and have a look, but we were mainly heading towards where the biggest temples were.
There were a few gift shops on our way and I was delighted to see that they had a shop selling Studio Ghibli merchandise. As I’m such a huge fan, I had to stop and buy some stuff.
Around 10-15 minutes up the road is Garan, Mount Koya’s central temple conplex. Here you can see Kondo Hall and vermilion Konpon Daito Pagoda. We didn’t go into any of the buildings, but we took a lot of photos outside.
All the bright buildings looked awesome in the bright sunlight and there were a lot of tourists around this area. After wandering around Mount Koya, we caught the bus for the cable car at around lunchtime to start making our way to Kyoto, which I will continue in my next post!
Would you ever stay in a Japanese temple?
Want to read more of my posts on Japan?
See all my posts
Mount Koya – Staying in a Buddhist temple
Kyoto Part 1 – Bamboo forest, Golden Pavillion and Gion, the Geisha district
Nara – Feeding the deer and visiting the worlds largest wooden building
Kyoto Part 2 – Temples, torii gates and lots of tradition
Tokyo Part 1 – Bullet train, shopping and a gig
Mount Fuji & Lake Kawaguchiko – A stroll around the lake with a great view of Mount Fuji
Tokyo Part 2 – Shinjuku, Sunshine City and the Pokemon Centre