My Koyasan temple stay experience will stay with me forever.
I stayed at the Henjosonin Temple, high up in the hills of Mount Koya. I love being in the mountains, although, usually, I’m on skis. It was a delightful change to be able to work out my footing and not be expected to ski down.
– Saito (West Tower) was built by Kobo Daishi’s successor, Shinzen Daitoku, based on Kobo Daishi’s master plan
Mount Koya is one of the top places in Japan for a temple stay, as it’s at the centre of Shingon Buddhism. This is an important Buddhist sect introduced to Japan by the monk Kobo Daishi in 805. He’s one of Japan’s most significant religious figures and his mausoleum is close to the Henjosonin Temple.
Staying in a shukubo
I stayed overnight in Koyasan, at a shukubo – the Japanese term for a temple stay. We visited the Okunoin memorial ground – an absolute must – the Kobo Daishi mausoleum, we had a traditional lunch and explored the many surrounding temples too. We saw so many I’ve labelled the pics for you to pick your fave.
It really was the temple stay in Koyasan that was the highlight though.
– The Henjosonin Temple grounds, where I stayed
There are tens of temples offering ‘shukubo’ in Koyasan, so the best temple stay in Koyasan is difficult to choose. I can only tell you about the Henjosonin Temple, which was an ‘enlightening’ experience.
Here’s what you can expect….
My Henjosonin Temple Stay in Koyasan
I sat with my legs as crossed as my body, and jeans, would let me. A perpetually stiff back, especially after the previous week of skiing in Bulgaria, and a day of wandering around Osaka and Koyasan, made this incredibly uncomfortable.
Why do you have to be so uncomfortable to meditate?
I was in a meditation class, with a Japanese buddhist monk as my teacher. I wanted to be star of the class, I really did. But more than that, I wanted to be in bed, lying down and trying to clear my mind. Rather than sat here, unsure of how long it would last, or even, I could last.
The room was beautiful – we were in the main hall of the Henjosonin Temple where we’d arrived a few hours before.
I had actually done a Japanese meditation class before, but that room had been a simple classroom. This was a textbook temple, with gold, candles, flowers and offerings.
And me, perched on a cushion.
Our monk had obviously sensed my discomfort and suggested I fold the seat cushion and try sitting cross legged on it that way. It felt 5% better.
And so began 20 minutes of silence.
– Inside the main hall at the temple
Twenty minutes of me discreetly fidgeting, of silently stretching my legs out, of arching my back till it cracked, of shuffling around on the cushion – hoping the next position would be the one. Twenty minutes of me going through recipes in my head, blog posts in my mind and counting to 100 hoping I’d be interrupted by the bell to signal the end.
He asked what we’d thought of.
My fellow blogger replied ‘mountains’, and went into an intricate explanation while I sat there attempting to make something up in case he pushed the question on me.
I couldn’t tell him about the tasty cauliflower burgers I’d had in Bulgaria I was planning when I got back, or what I was going to wear to Universal Studios on Wednesday in the rain, or the photos I wish I could take of us all doing this. I felt that wasn’t what he was after.
Knowingly, he skipped my answer.
The meditation was all part of the experience of joining a temple stay in Koyasan though. One of the most densely populated temple areas in all of Japan. This is one of the places for a temple stay in all of Japan.
Check out the latest prices for the Henjosonin Temple on Booking.com now!
Tips for your Koyasan temple stay
– Koyasan is home to the largest rock garden in Japan, right here
1. Pack warm clothes
My room was COLD. They’d put a heater on it, which didn’t quite stretch to cover the whole room. I moved my bed to right in front of it, to curl up like a cat. I also found a spare duvet in the cupboard so used that too.
Make sure you pack cosy warm clothes to be as comfortable as possible.
2. Beds are ryokan style
– My room at the Koyasan temple stay
Don’t worry if you can’t find your bed in the temple room, they will put it out at night, when you’re at dinner. Beds are Japanese style – a mattress on the floor with a duvet and a buckwheat pillow.
3. Brave the hot bath
My room had a deep bath in the bathroom. I couldn’t not. It was a test to endure the cold in the bathroom, but well worth it once I was in the hot bath. Make sure you have time to indulge in this.
There are male and female onsens at the temple, but with such a big bath in my room I didn’t feel the need to leave. Also didn’t fancy getting naked in public, although, I think we were the only guests there that night.
4. Get a shiatsu massage
If I’d have known about this before I totally would’ve done it. What an opportunity to have a proper Japanese shiatsu massage in your room, in a temple!
Enquire beforehand and book it in so they’re ready for your arrival.
5. Dinner is veggie, and amazing
– Dinner at the temple stay was a vegetarian FEAST!
There’s just something about being served dinner in all these tiny pots – makes it all the more magical. Dinner at the Henjosonin Temple was all vegetarian, and made from ingredients sourced as locally to the temple as possible.
Also, the orange juice was locally produced, and there’s always a green tea to finish too.
It’s normal to get breakfast on your Koyasan temple stay, which followed the same traditional Japanese style.
6. Join the evening and morning meditation
I’d strongly recommend wearing comfy trousers to the meditation sessions as you’ll be expected to sit there cross legged for quite a while. I had thick jeans on which were very uncomfortable, the next morning I just wore my PJs, over tights, and was much comfier.
After the morning meditation you’ll be shown under the temple, for a magical tour. I’ll leave that for you to discover yourself. You get to go under the temple for a look round.
You don’t need to prepare!
7. There’s a lounge and a bar
I was surprised to see they did serve alcohol at the temple stay, although, they do ask that you don’t drink anything before the meditation to protect the sanctity of the act. Afterwards, feel free to enjoy some Asahi from the vending machine(!).
There’s a lounge with lots of comfy seats if you don’t fancy going straight back to your room.
– Out of the hallway window at my Koyasan temple stay
8. Don’t wear your yukata to meals or meditation
Just wear your (warm) civilian clothes or you’ll be sent back to your room to change.
9. Bedrooms are big
My room at the temple stay in Koyasan was more like an apartment. I had a large bedroom, a sitting room off to the side, a large hallway, a separate toilet and then a bathroom. The room is floored with tatami mats, as is the Japanese way, and has screens as you’d expect.
There was a large hot flask of green tea in the room for me, and a yummy little wafer biscuit that I scoffed on arrival too.
10. The monks ring bells multiple times a day
Once at 4am (I was awake for that one), once at 6:30am (present for that one at the meditation) and again at 10:30am. This is to ward off evil spirits.
11. You can leave your bags in a locker in Osaka
– The manholes of an area in Japan reveal their trade. Mount Koya is known for having a lot of fires, and the fire brigade are celebrated here
There are lockers at Osaka Station where you can leave your bulky possessions to travel light. You don’t have to do this, but it definitely made life easier at the top.
– Koyasan temple stays are called ‘shikubos’ and you can get more information from the Shikubo Tourist Information Centre in town.
– As you wander around you’ll see ‘Audio Guide points’ listed. You can access these using the app on your phone, but you will need to have data to do this. If you don’t have data, you can hire a machine in town, at the Shikubo Tourist Information Centre.
Things to do in Koyasan
– The Danjo Garan is the monastic complex including Kondo and Daito, built by Kobo Daishi Kukai. Major Buddhist services of Koyasan are held here
While you’re in Koyasan it makes sense to have a look around and take in some of the spiritual things to do in Koyasan. Here’s what we got up to on our overnight in Koyasan.
1. The tori gates and church
Just five minutes from the Henjosonin Temple Stay is an awesome run of tori gates leading up to a church. There’s one of these in Kyoto and all the Instagrammers go crazy for it so get yourself to this one, where there are none to be found.
Take the short hike (5 minutes) to the top and you’ll find a cute temple giving out hot tea.
2. The town with coffee shops
There are a few restaurants and coffee shops in Koyasan. During peak season the town swells with people wanting Koyasan temple stays. The restaurants were mostly closed when I visited in January, but they’re well set up to serve when more people are around.
We went to the Ichinobashi Tourist Center and had a great shabu shabu (hot pot). Also, the most delicious Japanese dessert I’ve ever had. It was like a moshi thing but filled with cream.
3. Okunoin Cemetery
If you’re in Koyasan for a temple stay I’d definitely recommend visiting the Okunoin Cemetery. This isn’t a burial ground as such, but more of a memorial site. Companies like Nissan will have their own mausoleums, where their workers can come and pray for other workers, or remember their lives.
Some of the sites are huge, and very impressive.
The cemetery is also where people come to pray for skills. This is the one where women come to pray to be better at doing make up, seriously.
The Okunoin Cemetery was a fascinating place.
Smaller gravestones gathered around the bottom of trees which had apparently been left by pilgrims who’ve come from afra and are unable to finance a stone in the cemetery. It’s expensive to be in here, which is kinda controversial in itself.
4. Kobo Daishi Mausoleum
The Kobo Daishi Mausoleum is one of the key sites in Koyasan. It’s where Kobo is believed to lay to rest.
Twice a day the monks will bring a food offering up, to give thanks for bringing religion here, and as a symbolic gesture to show they think he’s still alive. The surroundings of the mausoleum make for a moving experience to see the monks doing their thing.
It’s so sacred here in fact, that no photography equipment is allowed past this bridge.
5. Daimon (the Great Gate)
We went to see this in the evening, in the rain, so unfortunately it wasn’t the optimum conditions. The Daimon marks the centre of Koyasan and if you just wander across the road (when the weather is right) you can see amazing views across the valley.
Getting to your Koyasan temple stay
Taking the train
It’s easy to get to Koyasan for your temple stay. You can get the train from Osaka Station, right in the heart of the city.
On the train ride to Koyasan you’ll see little villages nestled in the countryside, you’ll see the impressive Mount Koya ahead of you too – depending on the time of year it may be dreamily snowcapped.
The train is comfy and warm, and you can book seating in the peak carriage. There’s a toilet on board in the middle of the carriage.
You’ll arrive into Gokurakubashi Station, which is the end of the line. Get off, take a picture of the cool train carriages, and then jump on the funicular up the mountain.
The Koyasan funicular
There are two ways up to Koyasan. You can either walk (23km) or, get the funicular. Obviously the funicular is the right choice. In less than 10 minutes you’ll be up the mountain and ready to explore.
We had a taxi pick us up and take us to the Henjosonin Temple. You can pick up a taxi there, or, I’d advise letting your temple know of your arrival time and organising a pick up.
Being up in the mountain the temperature is a lot lower up here, you don’t want to be waiting around for a car. Make sure you have some cash with you as most places won’t accept card.
My Koyasan Temple Stay
Although I may have moaned about the cold at my temple stay while I was there, I actually loved the experience. I believe that it’s when you’re out of your comfort zone that you have the best time, and this was definitely that.
– The Hasu-ike (Lotus Pond) was constructed to pray for the delivery of those suffering from drought. It enshrines a statue of Zennyo Ryuo and the Buddha’s ashes.
The surprise and unknowing was what made it so interesting.
I’d 100% recommend doing a temple stay in Koyasan while you’re in Osaka, and in Japan, it’s a great way to connect with the country, and yourself!