Staying in Traditional Japanese Accommodation Part 2 – Buddhist Temple

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.

Buddhist Temple

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.

The driveway leading to the temple

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.

 Dinner in the temple.
Dinner in the temple.
Dining room

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.

Staying in Traditional Japanese Accommodation Part 1 – Ryokan

Japan is a wonderful country to visit, one of my favourites. In particular the variety of environments you encounter when there is extremely endearing. On our last visit to Japan we stayed in some really great hotels, including the Park Hyatt Tokyo (aka the Lost in Translation hotel) but the standout memories were from spending the night in more traditional Japanese accommodation.

When thinking about traditional Japanese accommodation, the first thing that springs to mind is a Ryokan but there’s another option that we’ll cover in part 2, a Buddhist Temple.

First up is the default option for traditional Japanese accommodation, a Ryokan. Ryokans differ from hotels in a few key ways. Most notably, you sleep on the floor rather than in a bed. As you are served food in your room, the “beds” aren’t made up until after dinner at which point the small table used for dining is moved or removed and the padded covers put down. You’re also given Yucatan to wear (similar to a dressing gown) and it’s entirely acceptable, if not encouraged, to wear them the entire time, including in the communal areas.

The construction of the rooms also differs from a typical hotel. The walls are made of paper and the floor is made up of tatami mats. Most ryokans have shared bathrooms and communal baths.

We stayed in a Ryokan called Ryokan Tanabe in the town Takayama, a 5 hour train journey from Tokyo and a sensible second stop in Japan if you’re moving from Tokyo to Kyoto (the train journey is actually in two parts, the first part bullet train and the second part a very scenic and picturesque trip from Nagoya station to Takayama). Takayama is an enchanting town that’s known for it’s Edo period heritage buildings and festivals (as well as sarubobo, the faceless baby monkey dolls meant to bring good luck). For me the stand out memories were the awesome autumn colours and the incredible hida beef (Japan is a beef lover’s paradise).

This particular ryokan appears to be run by a delightful elderly couple who take care of all your needs, including making the beds and serving the food. We opted for a slightly more expensive room that included a private bath, toilet and small private garden area. The communal baths are, by all accounts, very nice. They have both wooden and stone varieties and helpfully alternate which gender uses which in the evening and day, so all guests can try both. Unfortunately we were stretched for time so only used our private bath.

There is a knack to using this. There’s a small wooden bucket with a tap/faucet above it. Pressing the button fills the bucket with warm water. You use this bucket to wash your hands, feet and private parts before going in to the main wooden bath, that’s to the right of this area. There’s a small stool to sit on when you’re doing this – it was a bit of a struggle for my 6’3″ frame, as was fitting comfortably in to the wooden bath.

Overall though, it was a pleasant experience and really rather relaxing. It made for a refreshing change to the normal underpowered hotel shower with a shower head placed at roughly nipple height.

As you can see from the photos above, there’s a small table and legless chairs in the middle of the room. This is where dinner was served, and it was a real experience. At the agreed time there’s a gentle knock on the door followed by the elderly lady shuffling in to the room on her knees. What followed was a procession of food and drink being positioned just so on the table. The care given to presentation rivalled most fine dining restaurants. It was completely symmetrical, given there were two of us dining.

Thankfully there was also a brief demonstration of how to eat some of the elements presented. Given that I don’t speak Japanese, and the lady serving us spoke very little English, it was remarkably effective. There were huge smiles all around, and it was a wonderful experience. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so welcomed when being served anything, anywhere.

I’d love to tell you what was served, but I’m largely in the dark. There was definitely some delicious hida beef, some miso soup, some tempura dishes, rice, seaweed (nori), tofu, noodles and all sorts of other elements. I honestly found some elements challenging (my partner, a fair weather vegetarian, even more so) but most of it was delicious and filling. Breakfast was similarly served in the morning (the lower of the two photos above). One of the most remarkable dining experiences I’ve ever had.

 Some of the dishes served
Some of the dishes served

Following dinner, our plates were cleared, the table and chairs put away and the beds made. I felt a little awkward at this point. The beds were made by what I assume to be the elderly lady’s husband who was also quite elderly. This clearly didn’t bother him as much as it bothered me as he scrambled around on the floor laying out and then covering the mats and blankets in a very choreographed and agile display.

 Beds in the Ryokan Tanabe
Beds in the Ryokan Tanabe

I actually found the beds quite comfortable. The pillows, in particular, were very nice indeed. What was strange though, was waking up in the morning, realising you’re on the floor and your brain assuming that something went wrong in the night.

This ryokan, as is typical, had a pleasant communal area where you could spend time with the hosts and other guests should you wish. There was also a small gift shop and the obligatory area to store your shoes on entry (shoes have to be removed upon entering and slippers are provided).

Overall, this was a very pleasant night in a lovely part of Japan. I’ll write up a more detailed report on Takayama at a later date as it’s a special location that warrants exploring a little more.

An alternative Р Buddhist Temple

Ryokans are relatively popular in Japan (although can be more difficult to find, and are certainly more expensive in the larger cities) and are often occupied by tourists looking for a more traditional Japanese experience. But there is an alternative. In Part 2, we’ll look at what it’s like to stay in a genuine, functioning Buddhist Temple in a mountain village.