In the first part of our look at traditional Japanese accommodation we looked at a ryokan, the traditional Japanese Inn. For many, this represents the final word when it comes to traditional Japanese accommodation, but there is another option.
Yes, it's possible to stay in a genuine, functioning Buddhist temple.
Unlike ryokans, which are plentiful, staying in a Buddhist temple will require a little more adventuring. Not a lot, and far less than you'd expect, but a little more. The temple we stayed in was in a small town called Koyasan, which is located mid way up Mount Koya.
Yes, this is a Buddhist Temple mid way up a mountain! Awesome.
Getting to Koyasan requires a fairly convoluted train journey. We set off from Kyoto at around 11am and arrived at the temple at around 3pm. This involves catching a train from Kyoto to Osaka, then using the Osaka mass transit system to get to Namba and then another two trains before finally reaching the Nankai Koyasan Cable Car, which is the primary way in to the town. The cable car is quite an adventure in itself. It's incredibly steep with stunning views all around. It's worth noting that the Namba to Koyasan section of this journey is not covered by the excellent Japan Rail Pass.
Upon reaching the top of the cable car, you simply locate the correct bus, jump on and away you go. Ten minutes later and we were outside our accommodation for the night, the Fudoin Temple. I'll cover Koyasan in more detail in another post.
The entrance way is framed by two banners and a rock with Fudoin etched in it. It's then a short walk up to the main complex.
The temple was reminiscent of the ryokan. Shoes had to be removed upon entry and the sleeping arrangements were the same (i.e. mats were laid on the floor only when it was time to sleep). Again we had a private bathroom. Apart from the morning ceremony and dining, we only really dealt with one monk (I'm unsure as to whether he was actually a monk, but I think any layman would describe him as such). He was very friendly, welcoming and spoke a little english. It's always surprising how enthusiasm and friendliness act as ample substitutes for a common language.
Rather than food being served in your room, it was served in a communal dining room. It was a set menu and all meals were served to all guests at the same time. The communal dining room was beautiful, with approximately eight tables set out with screens between each. There were only three other tables occupied when we ate. The screens were adorned with traditional Japanese art, as were the walls. Some of the guests wore their yukatas to dine. Mine was on the small size, so I did not.
As this is a buddhist temple the meals served are entirely vegetarian. In fact they follow Syojin ryo, which is a buddhist approach to cooking that incorporates five cooking methods (raw, boil, grill, fry and steam), the five tastes (sweet, sour, spicy, bitter and salty) and five colours (white, yellow, red, blue and black). Koya Tofu is also served as well as sake should you want it (hot or cold). I'm not an expert in Japanese cuisine by any means, but I'm told that this particular style of cooking is inspired by the Koyasan area and is meant to provide spiritual and mental strength.
First, a disclaimer. For me to consider something a meal it has to contain meat. I'm a lover of meat and struggle with vegetarian meals. In fact, I believe this was the first vegetarian meal I've ever eaten. To say I was impressed would be a massive understatement. The meal was really quite fantastic. The standout was the Koya Tofu and the tempura style vegetables. My girlfriend, who's a fair weather vegetarian, said it's the best vegetarian meal she's ever had.
Upon finishing dinner we returned to our room to find that the beds had already been made. The beds were very very similar to those in the ryokan, with a pad laid on the floor and covered blankets provided. One thing to note, however, is that the temple can get very cold. We visited in November and whilst the rest of Japan was reasonably warm Koyasan in general was really rather cold and wet. There is a space heater provided in the room which we used, but the smell from the oil fuelling it was too much for extended use. Thankfully the blankets on the beds were warm and I had a comfortable night (although I generally prefer the cold). As you can see, a television was also provided in the room as was a private toilet.
You're given the option of attending the morning ceremony. After all, this is a functioning Buddhist temple. The call is very early, and you'll be fetched from your room at the agreed time. The ceremony lasts for about 30 minutes and is, to a degree, interactive. That is, you're asked to come to the front and light candles. It's actually very relaxing, with a lot of typical chanting and singing. There's also an english section where some of the temple's history is spoken about (the resident monk studied English at university). They also talk about the history of Koyasan, mount Koya and the particular sect of Buddhism practiced in this area (Esoteric, or Shingon, Buddhism). All in all, fascinating, and a great way to start a day of exploring.
Following the ceremony, you're taken immediately for breakfast. Breakfast was significantly smaller than dinner but also delicious and meticulously served and presented. It's difficult to describe the atmosphere in the dining hall when eating. It's quiet and respectful. It's completely incomparable to any breakfast you've ever had at any hotel.
Koyasan is a UNESCO World Heritage site and unsurprisingly there's a lot of history in the temple itself, including the mausoleum of an Empress. The grounds are stunning, especially in the autumn (also, I'm told, May, when the rhododendrons are in bloom).
Koyasan should be near the top of anyone's list when visiting Japan and if you're looking for an authentic experience there's few better options than Fudouin Temple.