Afterhours enlightenment — spending the night in a temple on Mount Koya

20 Jan

The slightly chubby monk with a shaved head shuffles into the room bowing and carrying trays with stubby legs, like play tables for children. We stand awkwardly in the corner of our large, tatami-floored room until he motions for us to sit down with an open hand and a soft — dozo. Please. Go ahead.

There is an urge to sit in seiza, with legs curled under the body, on the thick blue mats, but this eventually devolves into legs splayed in numerous directions, coming out from under the little tables.

As this is Japan, they will serve beer with your shojin ryori temple food.

As this is Japan, they will serve beer with your shojin ryori temple food.

Food fit for Zen Buddhist monks — shojin ryori — is served in numerous little dishes. Vegetarian, possibly even fully vegan, food that is free of animal products and even garlic and onion because of their strong tastes. The emphasis is on fresh local ingredients — sesame tofu, miso soup, beans, and pickled, stewed and tempura vegetables.

The garden and hallway outside the rooms at Muryokoin temple.

The garden and hallway outside the rooms at Muryokoin temple.

A meal like this is one of the treats of staying in shukubo — temple lodgings. This past September, I stayed at Muryokoin temple, atop mystical Mount Koya-san, which is less than two hours from Osaka. More than 50 temples on Koya offer shukubo.  Muryokoin has guest rooms that face a central, perfectly manicured Japanese garden with pond.

Necessary yukata photo shoot.

Necessary yukata photo shoot.

It’s a quiet, traditional place to stay. The temple is surrounded by ancient, towering trees and set in the small charming town of Koya. It’s less than a ten minute walk from the impressive Okunoin cemetery, a must visit in Koya that we wandered both at night and the following morning.

Bed time comes quite quickly on Koya-san, as the town goes dark very early and the bath closes at 9pm. But this makes it all the easier to wake up before the sun for the Buddhist morning ceremony.

Muryokoin allows guests to attend the Goma fire meditation in the richly decorated, dark worship hall, that fills with smoke and rhythmic chanting each morning.

Staying in a temple on Koya is not cheap (thanks, ma!), as it’s about 10,000 yen ($100) per person but that does include both dinner and breakfast and, of course, the experience.

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