Established over 1200 years ago by Kobo Daishi as a place of meditation for Shingon Mikkyo (Shingen esoteric Buddhism), Kongobuji is the main temple there. In 2004 it was recognized as a world heritage site for “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range” and more than half of the 117 temples there have temple hospices. If you are interested in Japanese meditation and vegetarian monk food instead of a luxury hotel this is your destination.
Knowledge from a stay at a temple hospice
When you hear the term temple hospice you may think “A temple? It might be a bit scary”. Or wonder how strict it is. Not to worry though there is nothing to fear. The staff at the temples are very accommodating and kind.
That being said it isn’t a modern hotel or anything like that, and it is a place of reflection and prayer, so the act of staying there alone is part of the training so it isn’t an easy going trip.
Depending on the building it can be cold and drafty, and in winter you may be very cold. Also, rooms are only separated by 1 fusuma (paper wall partitions), and you have to be considerate of those in the room next to yours. These kinds of experiences are important because they are so out of the realm of our daily lives, so it makes the trip rewarding once you accept it as is.
This time I stayed at a temple called “Henjyo-kouin”.
It is the only temple where Emperor Go-Shirakawa stayed for his pilgrimages. Apparently the impressive main gate is built the same exact way as the Kenshunmon gate at the Kyoto Imperial Palace.
The chill of the temple hospice halls, the warmth of the rooms
Kouyasan is approximately 900m in altitude. Cool in the summer, harshly cold in winter.
In the summer it is the de facto destination of elementary school kids from the Kansai area for open air classes. Actually not only elementary school children flock here but many come for the cool mountain air. That kind of busy season is good but, when there are no crowds in winter Kouyasan matures into a place for adults. It is a time when you can look at yourself honestly in the harsh cold. That’s why I implore you to visit then, but if you do go then you need to be ready for it.
Because it is a temple building, the ceilings are high, the front door is always open, and the halls are the same temperature as outside. There are days where it still snows in March.
The sleeping rooms all have heating for you to be comfortable, but going to the dining area or bathroom, the chill of the halls was intense. This is part of the training so don’t just stay hermited in the room but walk around and explore the temple.
All around the temple young monks in training are working hard for the guests in bare feet. Watching them work so tirelessly is also very enjoyable.
Ajikan, transcribing sutras, and morning devotional exercises
Since you are here, might as well take advantage of experiencing Ajikan, transcribing sutras, and morning devotional exercises.
First Ajikan. To explain as best I can to my understanding it is central to training in Shingen Mikkyo meditation methods. First you look at the scroll depicting moonlight to start with. You write the first character in Sanskrit Ah (阿) in your mind, to try to realize that you and the universe are one. Even with this method it is difficult to do more than just clear the clutter in your mind, and I found it hard to feel at one with the universe, but after 15 minutes of looking inward at myself I found myself feeling refreshed.
After this was the transcribing of sutra experience. Nowadays this usually means transcribing the “Heart Sutra” onto washi paper and trace a brush over the lightly printed characters. After earnestly tracing and transcribing each of the 262 characters, again your mind is cleared.
Finally, you go to sleep early to wake for the 6am morning devotional exercises. The early morning in the spacious main hall is bone chillingly cold. Even with the heater turned on for tourists your breath is white. It is so cold your sleepiness is washed away. The chanting voice from the head priest really eerily seeps into your mind.
After the morning devotional exercise, the head priest explained the Important Cultural Property statue of Amitabha Tathagata standing in the main hall.
A vegetarian meal that fills your heart
Because it is a temple hospice dinner and breakfast are both vegetarian prepared under Buddhist guidelines.
This Shyojin Ryori (religious vegetarian meal) is prepared without any animal products and only contain vegetable or beans and cooked expertly to bring out many different flavors and textures. Temple food has made its own steps in culinary evolution, and each season can be seen in the food by following the “five methods, five tastes, and five colors”.
Five methods refers to raw, stewed, grilled, fried, and steamed. Five tastes refer to salt, soy sauce, sugar, vinegar, and spices. Five colors refers to red, blue, yellow, black, and white.
In Shingon Mikkyo, the meal itself is a form of training, and it would be misleading to say it’s for enjoyment, but it is of importance to tourists. You heart starts to race as you see and taste the different dishes of Shyojin Ryori.
There is tempura that looks like shrimp at first glance but is actually carrot, or if you think its sashimi it really is konnyaku (a gelatinous food made from devil’s-tongue starch). The famous Goma Tofu (sesame seed tofu) has very strong sesame aroma, and had great texture. Because alcohol was provided, it was a fun meal albeit a quiet one.
Many of the temple hospices provide Shyojin Ryori in Kouyasan so I highly recommend it for anyone visiting the area.
Pick a temple hospice by looking at the uniqueness each has
With 52 temple hospices at Kouyasan, how do you choose which to stay at? This is probably on the minds of many reading this.
For those who are devoted to Buddhism you would just most likely look into which hospice is related to your local temple making the choice easy. For those that aren’t it becomes a question of what kinds of treasures do the temples display, or what kind of rooms do they provide, the meals, or even how close it is to a point of interest you want to visit. I stayed at 3 different ones so far, but each is a winner in my book with their own unique atmosphere and flavor.
When I visited “Henjyo-kouin” it was March. Although spring was right around the corner, it was a blizzard the day I visited.
My feet felt like they were frozen solid in the morning but the courtyard garden was a spectacular sight. This garden is a circuit style garden. It includes an important Kamakura Period Period pagoda, and is recognized as a place of cultural importance.
Even looking at it through glass it is a serenely beautiful view.
Staying at a temple hospice in the snow made me feel like I was able to glimpse into the harsh life of devotion and it was a wonderful experience. I definitely have to come back again in a different season.
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