Koyasan Syukubo Ekoin Temple Meditation Room

Buddhist Temple Retreat at Koyasan: Guide to an Overnight Stay

What is Koyasan?

Nestled high in the mountains of Wakayama is a sacred monastery complex called Koyasan. This area is the birthplace of Shingon Buddhism and was founded in 816 AD by a monk named Kukai (posthumously known as Kobo Daishi). Koyasan is one of Japan’s most holy sites and is visited by pilgrims and guests from around the world.

Koyasan streets

For travelers looking to immerse themselves in Japanese religion and spirituality, an overnight stay at one of the temples provides the perfect experience. You will be able to partake in different aspects of Shingon monastic life, become one with nature, and connect more deeply with yourself.

Koyasan Ekoin Temple Inside Rest Space

If this sounds like something interesting to you, keep reading! In this post, I will share my experience doing a Shukubo temple retreat on Mt. Koya, including what to expect during your stay, tips to prepare, and recommendations on what to do in the area.

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Table of Contents

How to Get to Koyasan

Koyasan, also called Mount Koya, is a temple settlement located high in the mountains of Wakayama prefecture. It is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site and includes Okunoin Cemetery, the place where Kobo Daishi has been enshrined. The best way to get to Koyasan using public transportation is to first make your way to Gokurakubashi Station. From Osaka Station, the trip is around 2 hours and from Kyoto Station, it is about 3 hours.

Gokurakubashi Station to Koyasan
Gokurakubashi Station

Once you arrive at Gokurakubashi Station, take the cable car up the mountain. The ride is 5 minutes and costs 500円.

Cable car to Koyasan

At the top, you’ll find a bus station. Hop on one of these buses to get to the main area. (About 15 minutes). Welcome to Koyasan!

Shukubo Temple Retreat on Koyasan

If you are making the trip to Koyasan, you will definitely want to book a night at a Shukubo (宿坊) which is a temple lodging for pilgrims and tourists.

Temple stay on Mt. Koya

There are 52 temples in Koyasan that offer Shukubo so you have many options to choose from. Each temple provides a slightly different experience, but for the most part, guests are able to see different daily rituals, participate in meditation, listen to sutra teachings, practice writing calligraphic sutras, and try vegetarian Buddhist cuisine.

Staying overnight in a temple is different than staying at a ryokan or hotel as there is a dedicated schedule and more customs to be aware of and respect.

Koyasan Syukubo Ekoin Temple
Main entryway of Ekoin Temple

During my time at Koyasan, I stayed at Koyasan Syukubo Ekoin Temple. I spent two nights at this temple which was nice, but given the high cost, you can stay only one night and still have a great experience.

Multiple buildings make up Ekoin temple, all of which brim with beautiful wooden architecture and Japanese-style features.

Koyasan Syukubo Ekoin Temple Japanese style building
Ekoin Temple entryway

The room that I stayed in had fragrant tatami floors, a window that looked out onto the garden below, and sliding doors and windows. The beds are traditional Japanese futons that are arranged by the staff in the evening and are put away in the early morning.

Koyasan Syukubo Ekoin Temple Japanese style room
Japanese style room

Meals are included with the room booking, so you can look forward to trying the traditional vegetarian meal of the monks, called shojin ryori. Read more about this below!

I arrived in the afternoon for check-in and since the temple is used to accommodating foreign guests, language wasn’t a problem. I was given a brief overview of the complex and then shown to my room where hot tea and sweets awaited me.

Inside Ekoin Temple in Koyasan

Below are different activities that you can experience when staying at Ekoin Temple at Koyasan!

Mediation – Ajikan (阿字観瞑想)

Meditation practice takes place in the afternoon during which everyone sits on the floor in a large building separate from the sleeping spaces. The focus of meditation varies depending on the day, but for the most part, you practice proper sitting, breathing, and repeating of a mantra.

Koyasan Syukubo Ekoin Temple Meditation Room
Meditation and morning service room

On the first day we counted, while on the second day, we chanted the letter “A”. It took a bit of time to get used to at first, but as time slowly passed, I found the meditation practice to be oddly relaxing and freeing.

It is recommended to wear comfortable clothes when attending the meditation session and if you are not able to sit on the floor, a chair can be provided.

Hand-Copied Sutra – Shakyo

Shakyo is the practice of handwriting a copy of a sutra. At Ekoin Temple, you are able to practice copying the Heart Sutra in your room on your own time. It is a form of meditation that connects the writer with a sense of peace and focus and is not meant to be a quick and mindless task.

The entire process involves cleansing yourself before starting, reading allowed a mantra seven times, sitting properly, copying the chosen mantra, and ending with a wish. An important note about Shakyo is that it is never allowed to be left half-done, so only start once you have the proper time and mindset.

After completing the sutra, you can take it home with you, register it with the temple for a fee, or have it burned in the morning fire ritual.

Vegetarian Buddhist Meal – Shojin Ryori (精進料理)

At 5:30 pm, dinner is served in each of the rooms. The meal comes on little vermillion tables and is placed on the floor of the room. (It is not the easiest way to eat, but you figure it out.)

Koyasan Syukubo Ekoin Temple Buddhist vegetarian food
Vegetarian meal

Each dish is vegetarian and made up of vegetables, mushrooms, plants, and tofu. While the ingredients are simple, the meal is far from boring. Being nothing close to vegetarian myself, I was curious how it would taste. It surpassed my expectations.

Each ingredient’s natural taste was delicately enhanced with light sauces and spices and it was easy to forget that meat products were omitted. My first dinner included includes tempura fried veggies, tofu, pickled veggies, cold noodles, seaweed, rice, and fruit.

Dinner at Ekoin Temple Koyasan
Koya-tofu in the lower right

Two Koyasan specialties in particular are Goma-tofu and Koya-tofu. Koya-tofu is a freeze-dried tofu that has been rehydrated into a juicy and soft dish. Goma tofu is a soft tofu that is made from roasted white sesame seeds that have been ground and boiled with starch. It has a slightly sticky texture and a wonderful sesame taste.

Dinner at Ekoin Temple Koyasan
Goma-tofu in upper left

Both of these tofus are high in protein and are an important part of the Shingon monk’s diet. I enjoyed the Koya freeze-dried tofu so much that I bought a package for myself at a local store during my trip.

After the meal, the dishes are cleared and the futons for sleeping are set out for the evening.

Okunoin Cemetary Night Tour (奥の院)

Okunoin (奥の院) holds the mausoleum of Kukai, who was the founder of Shingon Buddhism and is referred to as Kobo Daishi posthumously. Okunoin is just a short walk away from Ekoin Temple, so I was able to join an evening tour of the cemetery. Walking the sacred grounds surrounded by over 300,000 tombstones under the cover of darkness was magically chilling. Aside from the cicadas rustling in the air, a sense of peace blanketed the spiritual atmosphere.

Koyasan Okunoin Cemetary - Night
Okunoin at night

The misty darkness gave the night an eerie feeling, but the only scary thing was seeing a massive frog. My guide told me stories about the different tombs as we walked further and further into the cemetery. After crossing three bridges we reached the entrance to the holy mausoleum. Before entering, we cleansed ourselves and the surrounding Buddha statues with water.

Okunoin during the day

Because Kobo Daishi has been enshrined at Okunoin, it is a very important place for the monks of Koyasan. It’s not often you can walk through such a wondrous place at night so be sure to visit when you are in the area!

Public bath

At Ekoin Temple, there is a large public bath and shower facility available. Note that the bath is traditional Japanese style which means that it is shared with other guests. While it is gender-divided, wearing swimsuits/clothing is not allowed.

Morning Service

Bright and early at 6:30 am, head to the main hall to see the morning sermons take place. Here the monks chant several mantras using accompanying percussion like cymbals and a gong. I couldn’t understand what was being said during the chanting, but with all of the different tones and rhythms, it was like listening to a musical performance.

Burning incense: Shoko (焼 香)

During the morning service, everyone has a chance to participate in Shoko, or incense burning. The steps are as follows: first bow, then place your hands together. Next, take incense from the container next to the urn, bring it near your forehead, then place it on the smoldering incense in the urn. Place your hands together once more, then finish with a bow before returning to your seat.

It was a bit nerve-wracking waiting for my turn and trying to remember the steps, but I was able to see the people in front of me perform Shoko and copy after them.

Fire Burned Wooden Wish – Soegomagi

In your room, you will find a wooden stick called soegomagi where you can write a wish.

Soegomagi burned wish Koyasan

If you give it to the front desk before 9pm, it will be ceremoniously burned in the fire ritual the next morning.

Gomakito Fire Ritual (護摩祈祷)

Every morning, a holy fire is lit to cleanse participants both spiritually and psychologically and to destroy negative energies and harmful desires. During the ritual, the fire is slowly built until it reaches its peak where it roars loudly to the sounds of a beating taiko drum and the chanting of the priests. As the air fills with incense and smoke, it can be easy to fall into a sort of trance, completely absorbed in the moment. Soegomagi sticks that have been collected the day before are burned during this ritual.

After the fire ritual, breakfast is served in the rooms.

Breakfast at Ekoin Temple, Koyasan
Temple Stay Breakfast

Things to note about temple stays

Staying at a temple is different than staying at a hotel as the activities take place at designated times including early in the morning. To make the most of your experience, plan to rest early and wake up early.

Koyasan Ekoin Temple Interior

During your stay, the monks enter the room several times to bring and take away meals and to set out and put away the bedding. Bathrooms are shared and the walls between rooms are thin. Because of these reasons, there is less privacy when staying overnight at a temple.

At Ekoin, the temple’s main gate closes at 10 pm so you cannot leave during this time.

Koyasan Ekoin Temple Exterior

Participating in a temple stay is about experiencing firsthand a part of the Shingon Monk lifestyle. Don’t expect to sleep in and leisurely go about your day as activities start early and everything runs on a timed schedule. Traveling with children might be difficult due to the conditions mentioned above.

Other Things to Do on Koyasan

While participating in the different temple activities will keep you busy for a decent part of the day, here are some other things you can do on Koyasan to fill out your trip.

Koyasan Temples and Shrines

See the Daimon Gate

Daimon Gate marks the entrance to Koyasan and was built in the 11th century. You can take the bus, but I recommend walking for a nice stroll if your lodging is located near the area.

Koyasan Daimon Gate

Hike the Sacred Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Trail

The Kumano Kodo is a network of pilgrimage routes dating back over 1,000 years ago. It stretches across the Kii Peninsula and is a historic and spiritual place for those wanting an immersive cultural experience. The Mizugamine Peak trail starts at Koyasan, so for those looking to add an adventurous trek, consider adding a part of the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage to your trip.

Buy Koya-Tofu Souvenir

If you enjoyed the Buddhist vegetarian meal during your temple stay, you can pick up some of the famous Koya-tofu at a shop in town. It comes with a seasoning packet to add to water to make a simmering broth. It’s easy to make and a great way to remember the trip once you return home. There are shops that sell goma-tofu too!

Walk Okunoin Cemetary During the Day

Okunoin Cemetery is just as beautiful in the daytime as during the day. Even if you participate in the evening tour, I recommend heading back once the sun has risen to enjoy the towering trees (some are over 500 years old!) and lush greenery surrounding the cemetery.

Koyasan Okunoin Cemetary, Wakayama

Visit the Shrines and Temples

There are various shrines and temples dotted around Koyasan for you to enjoy and visit during your stay.

Temples in Koyasan

Add Koyasan to Your Japan Trip

Hopefully, you enjoyed learning about Koyasan and the different activities you can participate in during a temple stay and around the area. Visiting Koyasan is an amazingly unique experience and one that should be on your next Japan trip itinerary!

For more adventures in Japan, check out these blog posts and videos!

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