Dormire in un tempio

Temple stay in Japan

Shukubo, Temple Lodging. Overnight in a temple has been a common practice in Japan since ancient times, when temples scattered in the Japanese mountains would open their doors to pilgrims traveling to major temples and shrines, seeking blessings, protection, and good fortune.

Today, Shukubo welcomes travelers who visit these places, not necessarily embarking on a pilgrimage, and staying in a Buddhist temple has become a unique experience to have during a trip to Japan. Although there are many Shukubo spread across the peninsula, there are not many easily accessible by public transport, especially temples open to welcoming foreign tourists. Among the most famous places to stay in a Buddhist temple is Mount Koya, south of Osaka, where I’ve been twice. The first was in 2014, during my second trip to Japan, when Mount Koya was still a little-known destination for foreign tourists, while the second was 10 years later, in February, a low season month where a heavy snowfall welcomed us, making the visit even more magical.

Koyasan is not the only place in Japan where you can stay overnight in a Buddhist temple, but it is certainly the most “prepared” for international guests. Here, indeed, there are temples with monks who speak English and more modern rooms also with a private bathroom in the room, something usually not present in simpler Shukubo which instead only has shared bathrooms.

Temple garden

What is the experience of staying in a Buddhist temple like?

First of all, it must be remembered that this is indeed a temple, not a ryokan or a hotel. The primary purpose of the facility is not hospitality or to make customers feel at home, but it’s you being guests in their house! No special requests or demands, but maximum respect for the rules and times established by the temple, which are not negotiable or debatable.

When you arrive at the temple, you take off your shoes place them on the designated shelf at the entrance, and put on the slippers provided to move around the temple corridors. The slippers should ONLY be used in the corridors and on the wooden floor, but must be removed and left outside when you enter a room with tatami or shared bathrooms (there are often other slippers to change for the toilet).

Check-in is generally between 3:00 and 4:00 PM. You can arrive earlier and leave your luggage and if the room is ready, they will let you settle in, but if you are late they might not only not give you dinner, but also not let you access the temple!

Dinner is served very early, between 5 and 6 PM depending on the season and when it gets dark, and in general, it would be better to take bath before dinner. Usually, dinner is served in the dedicated hall, where screens are placed for the privacy of different guests in different rooms, and in many temples, it is served on small tables placed on the tatami and therefore you eat while sitting on the floor. In some temples, there are folding tables and chairs, but consider that this is not the standard. If you have knee problems or cannot sit on the floor, it is better to communicate this in advance.

Both dinner and breakfast follow the dictates of Shojin Ryori, traditional Buddhist vegetarian cuisine. Meals generally include various seasonal vegetables cooked in different ways, tofu, miso soup, and rice, all accompanied by green tea. The menu is fixed and does not allow for variations, just as drinks other than tea are not served. The base is 5: five types of cooking (raw, steamed, grilled, boiled, and fried), 5 tastes (sweet, bitter, spicy, sour, and salty), and 5 colors (yellow, red, white, green, and black).

Shojin Ryori - temple stay

For dinner, you can wear the yukata, a sort of robe that you will find in the room and is considered a kind of pajamas. However, this will be strictly prohibited at breakfast, as it takes place after the morning prayer that marks the beginning of the day, so it is rude to “continue wearing pajamas.”

The rooms of the temples are simple, with tatami floors, sliding walls, a low table, and a small “internal terrace” with regular chairs and tables. You sleep in futons on the floor and with the classic Japanese pillow that contains some sort of grains that make it not suitable for everyone… I usually remove it from the pillowcase and wad up my clothes in the towel and insert this solution into the pillowcase. My neck thanks me. As the walls are indeed the classic sliding doors, the sound insulation is minimal, and as it is a temple, from 10:00 PM to 5:00 AM, you are invited to be quiet.

Generally, the bathroom, especially the bathtub, is shared. Divided by gender, it is a tub that you enter completely naked after thoroughly washing in the appropriate spaces, just like you do for the onsen. Generally, you can access the common tub from 4:00 PM to 8:00 PM. In many temples at Mount Koya, each room has its own sink and toilet, but generally, shukubo provide shared toilets and sinks, outside the rooms. Again, these are temples and not facilities created with the purpose of welcoming tourists!

Staying in a Buddhist temple also means participating in the morning prayer of the monks, which takes place early in the morning, generally around 6:30 AM. This prayer generally takes place in the main hall of the temple where there is the altar and the statues of the Buddha, but for example in Nagano, everyone goes to the main hall of Zenkoji. Being a sacred place and ceremony, it is strictly forbidden to take photos and videos. Forget about technology and the frenzy of the modern world for a moment and let yourself be carried away by the chant of the sutras sung by the monks. A hypnotic, calm but powerful song, capable of reaching straight inside you if you are ready to welcome it.

Participating in this morning ceremony is not mandatory, but it is highly recommended so I strongly urge you to get up early. Many temples also offer other activities, such as copying sutras, guided tours of temple halls, fire ceremonies, for which a donation is requested. Breakfast is served around 7:15 AM, after morning prayer, always in the dining hall and in the same way.

overnight at the temple

Staying in a Buddhist temple is definitely an incredible experience, but it requires some adaptation although it has recently become more “available to tourists”.

Discover other unique experiences!

Where to experience a Buddhist temple stay in Japan

Surely the most known destination where to experience staying in a temple in Japan is Koyasan, in Wakayama prefecture, about a couple of hours from Osaka. But also in Nagano, there are several Shokubo all around the important Zenkoji Temple and in pilgrimage places like Shikoku, the Kumano Kodo, or the sacred mountains of Dewa Sanzan, there are several Shokubo, although very basic and difficult to book without knowledge of Japanese.

Staying in a temple always also includes dinner and breakfast Shojin Ryori and for this reason, the cost is definitely higher compared to staying in a hotel.

Temple Stay, costs approximately around €100 per person per night, but I must say that the price for sleeping in a temple at Koyasan in recent years has risen a bit, averaging from €150-200 per person per night, roughly like traditional ryokan.

How to book a temple stay at Koyasan

At Mount Koya, there are about fifty shukubo, but not all can be easily booked. Sometimes it is necessary to contact them by phone in Japanese or they are not registered on various portals but have their own website to which to send the request even in English. The complete list with any contacts, can be found on the Koyasan Temples Association website.

Koyasan: exploring Japan’s Spiritual Heart

Some, like the Eko-in (also with luxury rooms with private bath), the Sekisho-in, or the Saizenin can also be booked from Booking, or you can book them through the Japanese guesthouse, which is the site I used in 2014. Through them, I had stayed at Shojoshin-in, the last temple at the end of the village and a stone’s throw from the entrance to the Okunoin Cemetery, which I was able to visit quietly after dinner and before the closing of the temple gate at 9:00 PM. Small room and with shared bathroom, but a very lovely internal pond where only guests could walk.

temple stay inner garden

How to book a temple stay in Nagano

Around the Zenkoji Temple there are 39 shukubo, all referring to the main temple of Zenkoji. The morning prayer does not take place inside the Shokubo, but in the main hall of the temple and before the start, everyone lines up along the access avenue to attend the arrival of the monk and receive the blessing. To enter the internal area with the tatami and attend the O-Asaji up close, you need to buy the entrance ticket for 600 JPY which will then give you access to the corridor with the Key to Paradise.

The shukubo here are simpler than Koyasan, with generally smaller rooms and only shared bathrooms, and only some welcome foreigners. To book you must contact the temples directly which, although they welcome foreigners, often are not exactly fluent in English. There is the Zenkoji Shukubo Association, but only accepts phone calls or faxes, so rather I would advise you to contact the Volunteer Guides who are the ones who will then accompany you to Zenkoji for the morning prayer.

There are also some shukubo that welcome foreigners and can be contacted directly from their website, which even if it is only in Japanese, is easy to navigate using the automatic translation of your browser. I want to mention Fuchinobo where I stayed personally, the Yakuoin which is very open towards foreigners and offers various activities on-site or the Konokonbu to be contacted by email.

Read also: Visit Nagano and Zenkoji

Other destinations where to experience temple stay

The temples where it is possible to stay are spread throughout Japan, but it is not always easy to get in touch to book or they are located in areas not always easily accessible without a car available.

Naturally, in the pilgrimage areas there are several shokubo, often very simple, so in Shikoku along the pilgrimage of the 88 temples or among the sacred mountains of Dewa Sanzan, in Yamagata prefecture.

At the large complex of the Eiheiji temple in Fukui, the most important Soto Zen temple in Japan, it is possible to take part in real zen training, which includes not only accommodation but also meditation practices and guided tours of the temple complete with explanations of the Buddhist doctrine. Here it is also possible to take part in several days of retreats, obviously for those who are already familiar with Zen.

Also belonging to Ehieiji, but smaller and simpler, there is the Sojiji Temple in Wajima. Unfortunately, the temple was damaged by the strong earthquake of January 1, 2024, that hit the Noto peninsula and at the moment it is not possible to visit it, nor to stay there, nor even to reach it. I hope to be able to update this article soon and that this temple resumes its normal activity. Here there is also a German monk, Shogen, who speaks English, making the experience more accessible to foreign visitors.

Nagano Zenkoji

In short, staying in a Buddhist temple is a unique experience that you should consider including in a trip to Japan, and depending on the itinerary and the level of comfort you are looking for, you can choose among different destinations. 

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