Why It’s Totally Worth It to Spend a Night in a Shukubō on Japan’s Holiest Mountain
High upon a mountain on Japan’s Kii Peninsula sits the village of holy men and ancient temples called Koyasan—the epicenter of Shingon Buddhism. Though it’s just a couple of hours by train from the electric bustle of Osaka, you’d be hard-pressed to find a destination that feels more off-the-beaten-path than this. Dotted with vermilion pagodas and vibrating with the hum of thousands of monks reciting sutras, the village radiates a deep, otherworldly tranquility.
Reaching Koyasan requires a little bit of planning and familiarity with the local train lines, but an overnight stay at one of its Buddhist temples offers the chance to understand just why Koyasan is considered one of Japan’s most sacred places. To make the journey a little easier, here’s everything you need to know before setting out on your own pilgrimage to the top of Mount Koya.
How do I get there?
Osaka is the best place to start if you want to visit Koyasan. At Namba station, catch the Nankai Koya line bound for Hashimoto, then switch to the Nankai Koya line headed for Gokurakubashi. The whole journey will take just under two hours, including the connection at Hashimoto. From Gokurakubashi, a 15-minute ride up the mountain by cable car will bring you to Koyasan station, where you can hop on a bus bound for the village. The station offers easy-to-read maps showcasing the bus routes and stops for different temples, but if you need some help navigating, just tell a station attendant which temple you’re staying at and he or she will help you get on the right bus.
Where can I stay and how much does it cost?
There are a few guesthouses in Koyasan, but most visitors spend the night in shukubō, Buddhist temples that offer private rooms to guests with access to dorm-style showers and bathrooms. Some temples, like Saizenin and Ekoin, offer rooms with private in-room baths, though you’ll pay more for the luxury. Like traditional ryokans, temple lodgings are traditional Japanese style with tatami floors, sliding doors and futons. In the evening, you’ll enjoy a multi-course vegetarian dinner, followed by breakfast in the morning—all prepared by the monks. A one-night stay typically costs between ¥9,000 - ¥15,000 per person. The easiest way to book is online using a third-party platform like Shukubo.net or Booking.com.
What do we do there, exactly?
Some people visit Koyasan just to soak up the spiritual energy and bask in the surrounding natural splendor. But if you’re looking to do more than just meditate, follow in the footsteps of other pilgrims and make your way around the temples. Record your stops in a goshuincho from the temple you’re staying at. These accordion-style books are used to collect seal stamps and calligraphy writing called goshuin from holy sites. Each shrine and temple has its own unique goshuin. A monk will draw one on a blank page in your book—including the name of the temple and the day you visited—for a donation of ¥3.
After dinner, join a night tour of Okunoin cemetery guided by a monk who will treat you to tales of the village’s history, Buddhist teachings, legends and superstitions as you stroll amid ancient graves and monuments. Many temples allow visitors to observe morning prayer ceremonies or try their hand at copying sutras—just ask your host for more information if you’re interested in participating in some traditional Buddhist practices. And no matter what, make sure to set aside time for a peek inside Toro Hall, where tens of thousands of lanterns burn continuously in honor of the deceased.