TV and beer at a monastery? A weekend at one of Japan's holiest spots

  •  Koyasan, two hours from Kyoto is one of the holiest towns in Japan
  •  Tourists can stay, eat and pray with Buddhist monks at the monasteries
  •  Only vegan food is allowed but TV, beer and Wi-Fi is also available

Vegan food? Six o’clock starts? Communal washing facilities? Spending a weekend at a Buddhist monastery may not be everyone’s idea of a good time.

However, when you see the beauty of Koyasan, one of Japan’s holiest towns, it does start to look more appealing.

Two hours from the major city of Kyoto in central Japan, this small town is the head quarters of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, established by its founder, the monk Kobo-Daishi in 819AD. Today there are more than 100 temples in the region.

Buddhist retreat: Hoon-in, is one of more than 100 temples in the small town of Koyasan 

Buddhist retreat: Hoon-in, is one of more than 100 temples in the small town of Koyasan 

The big draw in Koyasan is the Okunoin cemetery (above), which is believe to house the meditating Kobo Daishi while he waits for Miroku, the future Buddha to arrive

The big draw in Koyasan is the Okunoin cemetery (above), which is believe to house the meditating Kobo Daishi while he waits for Miroku, the future Buddha to arrive

To add to their mystique, one of the only ways to stay at one is by applying through the temple committee, who will assign you a lodging based on your price range.

Naturally, we picked economy, and were assigned to a small, modern temple called Hoon-in at the edge of town charging £65 per person per night, including a vegan dinner and breakfast.

After catching three trains, a cable car and a bus we arrived at Hoon-in temple in the late afternoon arriving in the driving rain and bracing ourselves for 48 hours of spiritual life.

I had expected a place of silent prayer, chanting and reflection. But my preconceptions of a land lost in time were instantly dashed when Ito, the monk who greeted us, pulled a mobile phone out of the pocket in his robes and started chatting away on it.

Then he took our bags and apologised, explaining that as we were staying in the sub-temple, a small building next to the main complex, the wifi wouldn’t work there. 

Hang on a second, wifi? This was not what I had imagined.

Traditional tastes: All the rooms have futons to sleep on the floor and Japanese tea sets

Traditional tastes: All the rooms have futons to sleep on the floor and Japanese tea sets

The simple life: The accommodation was surprisingly comfortable and did feature a TV and plug sockets, although the monks apologised that the second wifi did not work in the complex

The simple life: The accommodation was surprisingly comfortable and did feature a TV and plug sockets, although the monks apologised that the second wifi did not work in the complex

Shown to our room, we were also politely asked to remain quiet as the monks (and their wives) were living on the floor beneath us.

The room, though simple, had a TV and plug sockets. 

But where was the bed? The answer was rolled up mats with a thin duvet on top. Comfortable enough, but no one would be able to forget we were sleeping on the floor. 

Dinner was at 6pm sharp and the monks scurried around us, doling out rice, tea and miso soup in the largest room in the temple. 

The Shingon sect of Buddhism does not eat meat, fish, dairy products, onions or garlic, so I wasn’t sure what would leave for us to eat.

Dinner is served at 6pm sharp and while guests sit on the floor  monks dole out rice, tea and miso soup in the largest room in the temple

Dinner is served at 6pm sharp and while guests sit on the floor monks dole out rice, tea and miso soup in the largest room in the temple

Vegan treats: Dinner and breakfast at the temple had no meat, dairy,onions, garlic but was delicious 

Vegan treats: Dinner and breakfast at the temple had no meat, dairy,onions, garlic but was delicious 

But once again I turned out to be completely misguided as each meal was utterly delicious and packed with unexpected flavours.

Aubergine in peanut sauce, lightly battered tempura vegetables, pickles, soups, hot potato croquettes – it was a wonderful introduction to vegan food.

Way of life: Hoon-in Temple also houses the monks

Way of life: Hoon-in Temple also houses the monks

And it was washed down refreshingly with beer and sake on the side served by the monks – although they wouldn’t partake, they certainly didn’t object to us doing so.

Our fellow guests were mainly couples from Europe, although I was impressed by the way the children of one French family gamely tried all of the different vegetables on offer.

Not only did our room not have a permanent bed, there was no shower or bath. 

Instead, we were expected to wash in the communal bath after dinner.

Of course, the British are famed for being more prudish than many other nations, and the prospect of getting in to a bath with one of the women I had been chatting with at dinner didn’t exactly fill me with glee.

When I crept into the washroom there was only one other person there, which somehow made the situation even more awkward.

However, after rinsing off using one of the showers first (which is the custom in Japan), getting into the steaming bath was a great way to unwind after the hours of travelling.

At Okunoin graveyard Torodo hall (above) contains 10,000 lamps that are kept eternally lit out of respect for Kobo Dasihi

At Okunoin graveyard Torodo hall (above) contains 10,000 lamps that are kept eternally lit out of respect for Kobo Dasihi

Early in the morning, we were invited to join the monks prayer session at 6:30am. 

I dressed in a long top and leggings, expecting to take part in some kind of mystical chanting session akin to yoga or mediation. 

But as it turned out, we just sat in a row of chairs and watched the monks chant, individually and in unison, to a grand carved Buddha at the end of the hall.

It was a beautiful, hypnotic sound, but we all left being none the wiser as to what the prayer was about.

The big draw in Koyasan is the Okunoin graveyard, which is believe to house the meditating Kobo Daishi while he waits for Miroku, the future Buddha to arrive.

Holy place: A temple in Koya-san which is one of the country's holiest towns

Holy place: A temple in Koya-san which is one of the country’s holiest towns

Buddhists believe that only he will be able to interpret the new Buddha’s message for humanity, so being buried here is a good way to get close to the action. 

Accordingly, this is a graveyard for VIPs, with many Japanese samurais and aristocracy among the 200,000 buried here. 

The most breathtaking part is the Torodo hall, which contains 10,000 lamps that are kept eternally lit out of respect for Kobo Dasihi. 

A visit to Okunoin graveyard certainly makes you feel as if you have stepped into a special place, and there is a distinct aura around the whole of the town.

However, while the monasteries in Koyasan have ancient roots, this was a much more modern experience than I had expected.

TRAVEL FACTS 

Air France  flies to two airports in Tokyo: Tokyo-Narita and Tokyo- Haneda. The carrier offers 14 weekly flights via its Paris hub, Charles De Gaulle.

Prices start from £489 return, including taxes, from London Heathrow.

Koyasan is 80 minutes by train from the city of Osaka, three hours from Kyoto or four hours from Tokyo. From the train station there is a five minute cable car to the top of the mountain, which runs several times an hour in the daytime.

A reservation in a basic private room with a shared bathroom at the Hoon-in Temple costs 43,200 yen (£82) per night per person, including a vegan breakfast and dinner. 

Reservations can only be made online via the Koyasan Shukubo Temple Association, which assigns rooms based on budgetary requirements. 

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