THE MOUNTAIN IS DOTTED with a total of 52 shukubo, temples that historically offered overnight lodging to pilgrims. Most of these have also begun to welcome non-pilgrim tourists in recent decades (there are a dozen or so holdouts). For $80 to $150 per night, per person, you can sleep on a tatami mat on the floor of a traditional guest room in a 1,000-year-old temple, eat the monks’ traditional vegan fare, and participate in the daily meditation and prayer. A few of the temples advertise amenities like sutra writing classes, views of monks raking the gardens below, or natural hot springs to bathe in — features you can’t filter for on Airbnb or Hotels.com. And in the case of many of the temples, you can’t be totally sure what you are getting — an ambiguity that appealed to me in an era when every possible travel destination is so scrupulously documented and Instagrammed.
Although the temples on Koyasan were originally reserved for the most devout pilgrims, Buddhism is famously accepting of other religions. So over the last century, as temples in Japan and elsewhere began to struggle financially with fewer donations coming in, the natural solution was to open the doors a little wider and welcome visitors who were curious about Buddhism.
Reading up on the shukubo options before my trip, I learned that many previous visitors to Koyasan were irked by the simplicity of the lodgings. Some wrote on TripAdvisor.com that their rooms were too cold, or that they could hear their neighbors snoring through the 200-year-old paper walls of the temple. More than one reviewer complained that the multicourse vegan meals were too simple to satiate people who are accustomed to eating meat. “Take snacks or you will starve,” one warned.
Others felt that they weren’t quite receiving a good enough spiritual bang for their buck. “I expected something a bit spiritual and to feel that Zen/Buddhist vibe,” one visitor from Ohio complained, “I have to say I did not feel it.” Some complained that the monks running the temples didn’t speak enough English, or didn’t offer visitors enough individual attention. “The major disappointment came during dinner,” another wrote. “I was expecting to have the opportunity to mingle with the monks.”
I found these comments more entertaining than dissuasive. I wanted to go and prove to myself how little I was bothered by a chill in the air or a little noise through the walls. Maybe that would be its own form of spiritual growth on a micro scale — proof of my own congruity with the universe even under mildly uncomfortable conditions.
Arriving at this micro-enlightenment would take many modes of transportation, it turned out. Although Koyasan is only about 86 miles outside of Kyoto, the journey to get there is its own self-selecting odyssey. From Kyoto, I took three separate trains past power plants, greenhouses, small towns, backyard yuzu trees and grass tennis courts. At the base of the mountain, I shuffled off the train and onto a cable car along with a handful of European backpackers. At the top of the mountain, a bus waited for us to make the final journey along mortifyingly steep cedar-studded ravines into the center of Koyasan.
I arrived at my temple, Eko-in (part of the Danjo Garan temple complex), just as an American couple and their teenage son were checking in. A monk showed us where to put our shoes by the broad carved wood entrance. Outfitted with wooden slippers, I walked through a maze of creaky wooden hallways to my room, a small, serene square of space with elaborately painted sliding doors and a large window looking out onto the temple’s central garden. The room came equipped with a TV, a space heater, a telephone, and Wi-Fi. Waiting for me were some small red bean sweets and a kettle full of hot water for tea.
When it was time for dinner, a fleet of several monks arrived, bearing a carafe of hot sake and several lacquerware platforms for the food, each containing a clutter of small bowls. The traditional temple cuisine, called shojin-ryori, incorporates a bright variety of tastes, textures and colors. Tiny cups of vegetable broth and miso soup flocked around plates of delicate tempura squash, lotus root and shiso leaves. A pot of slightly bland but hearty cabbage and mushroom udon sat over a little flame. My favorite dish was one that Koyasan is famous for: a savory tofu-like pudding called goma dofu, made from ground sesame and arrowroot flour.
Once it was dark, I slipped out of my room and down to the main entrance of the temple to retrieve my shoes and join the nighttime tour of Okunoin Cemetery. An English-speaking monk led a group of about 20 guests from Eko-in and some of the surrounding temples through the lantern-lit paths of Japan’s largest cemetery, pointing out the moss-covered tombs of important national figures, including the inventor of Kabuki and the founder of Panasonic. Since Buddhism values all forms of life, our guide explained, not all of the graves belonged to human beings; the writing on one of them translated essentially to “R.I.P. Ants.” In the 600-year-old cedars overhead, we could hear the chirps and squeaks of flying squirrels rippling through the brisk air.
In the early morning, before breakfast was served, guests of the temple were invited to attend morning prayer and a daily fire ceremony. The printed schedule left in our room requested that visitors not use flash photography and issued a stern warning: “The morning service and fire ritual are NOT A TOURIST SHOW, monks must do them every day to show daily appreciation to Buddhist saints.”
In spite of this, few attendees of the fire ritual could resist capturing a moment or two of cellphone video: the drums, chanting and flames rising up to the ceiling of the temple as the presiding monk burned a stack of wooden slats with prayers written on them. Most managed to do this surreptitiously while kneeling quietly. About halfway through the ceremony, though, my eyes widened when I recognized a Frenchwoman from the cemetery tour standing at the back of the room, doing what could only be described as dancing to the beat of the drums. None of the monks seemed visibly bothered by her spontaneous self-expression.
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