Train Like a Buddhist Priest for a Day at Fascinating Shukubo Lodgings! | Food & Travel | Trends in Japan | Web Japan

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Train Like a Buddhist Priest for a Day
at Fascinating Shukubo Lodgings!

Guests who are staying at a shukubo, attached to a temple, can easily experience the everyday training of priests. © wa-Qoo

Guests who are staying at a shukubo, attached to a temple, can easily experience the everyday training of priests. © wa-Qoo

Japan offers a wide variety of lodgings, including Japanese-style inns and western-style hotels. Choosing accommodations is part of the fun of traveling, and one type of accommodation has attracted the attention of tourists from inside and outside Japan recently. They have been looking at shukubo, which are lodgings within temples and shrines. What kind of experience can they expect to have there?

How Does a Shukubo Differ from a Traditional Japanese Inn or a Hotel?

People are practicing zazen, which is the Buddhist practice of sitting in the correct posture and breathing deeply to focus the mind. © wa-Qoo

People are practicing zazen, which is the Buddhist practice of sitting in the correct posture and breathing deeply to focus the mind. © wa-Qoo

Shukubo often get exceptional praise from their guests, who have made remarks like "I felt completely refreshed, as if my spirit and body were washed" and "I was able to get from my experience the feeling of Japanese culture from long ago." Shukubo are lodgings located on the premises of temples (Buddhist places of worship) or shrines (places for worshipping gods specific to Japan). In the old days, Buddhist priests receiving training at temples, Shinto priests serving at shrines and visiting worshippers stayed there. Lately, however, more and more of them are accepting general tourists.

The greatest fascination that people have with shukubo in temples particularly is that they can easily get to experience the normal everyday training of priests. Some shukubo allow their guests to experience zazen, which is seated Zen meditation, and shakyo, which is the transcription of sutras containing Buddhist teachings. The guests staying at some shukubo can eat shojin ryori, which is the Buddhist vegetarian cuisine that priests eat every day.

Shakyo is one Buddhist practice that has lasted for over 1,000 years. You can learn Buddhist teachings by copying sutras while focusing your conscious mind on the brush tip in order to calm the mind. © wa-Qoo

Shojin ryori is prepared following the Buddhist teaching of "not taking life." The cuisine contains vegetables, tofu and grains, but not meat or fish. © wa-Qoo

Shojin ryori is prepared following the Buddhist teaching of "not taking life." The cuisine contains vegetables, tofu and grains, but not meat or fish. © wa-Qoo

Up-Close at a Shukubo – An Extraordinary One-Day Experience

Taiyoji in Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture. Established in 1313, this quiet temple sits deep in the mountains and receives many foreign visitors too at its shukubo. © Taiyoji

Taiyoji in Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture. Established in 1313, this quiet temple sits deep in the mountains and receives many foreign visitors too at its shukubo. © Taiyoji

How would you spend one day at the shukubo of a temple? Let's give you a taste of the shukubo experience at Taiyoji, a temple surrounded by mountains at an altitude of 800 meters in Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture. Your day starts below.

<Day 1> 15:30: Check-in

Taiyoji is about a three-hour train ride from Tokyo. Upon arrival at the shukubo, you are given an orientation of the facilities and then guided to your room. Men and women are divided into separate rooms, with four to six people per room.

<Day 1> 16:00: Shakyo or zazen

A priest carries a wooden stick called "kyosaku" (which literally means a warning stick) to administer a strike or series of strikes on the backs of people who cannot concentrate or keep the correct posture during zazen. One meditator who was struck said, "I felt pain but my mind cleared." © Taiyoji

A priest carries a wooden stick called "kyosaku" (which literally means a warning stick) to administer a strike or series of strikes on the backs of people who cannot concentrate or keep the correct posture during zazen. One meditator who was struck said, "I felt pain but my mind cleared." © Taiyoji

Training begins immediately after you put away your belongings in the room. Guests have the choice of shakyo or zazen, so you can participate in the one you like.

<Day 1> 18:15: Sutra chanting (Participation optional)

Sutra chanting is the chanting of sutras in the main hall, which is the building at the center of the temple. The sound of everyone's voice joins together with the priest's ringing bell to resonate and reverberate pleasantly throughout your body.

<Day 1> 19:15: Supper

Shojin ryori meals contain abundant vegetables and tofu. "It's healthy and delicious" is one of the favorable comments from guests. © Taiyoji

Shojin ryori meals contain abundant vegetables and tofu. "It's healthy and delicious" is one of the favorable comments from guests. © Taiyoji

Priests have done their best to cook a shojin ryori supper for you. They have made delicious and nutritious dishes from tasty vegetables. One popular dish is kenchinjiru, which is a soup containing tofu and seasonal vegetables.

<Day 1> Stargazing / Going to bed

If the weather is nice, you can enjoy a sky full of stars. This fun show is something that only Taiyoji does. In the shukubo, you are basically supposed to take care of things yourself. You lay out your own futon and go to bed before 22:00.

<Day 2> 6:45: Wake-up / Morning training (Participation optional)

After getting up, you gather with others and chant sutras in the main hall. You then listen to a priest's sermon. It would have been even better if you woke up earlier to breathe in the fresh morning air during a walk around the temple.

<Day 2> 7:15: Zazen (Participation optional)

As you practice zazen again, you hear birds singing. Some people say, "It's difficult to think of nothing." But the trick is to look from a distance at thoughts that come across your mind.

<Day 2> 8:30: Breakfast

The long-awaited time for breakfast has arrived. Most shukubo breakfasts are simple, consisting of okayu (rice porridge), oshinko (pickled vegetables) and other dishes. Let's chew well to enjoy the original taste of the ingredients.

<Day 2> Priest's sermon / Check-out

Your stay at the shukubo ends after you listen to a priest's sermon. Before leaving the shukubo, you express your gratitude to the priests and temple.

Let's Go to Koyasan and the Unique Shukubo Gathered There

Shukubo are scattered all over the country but those in Koyasan, which is designated as a World Heritage Site, in Wakayama Prefecture are particularly well known. Koyasan has 52 shukubo. Let's take a look at some of them.

Koyasan is in Wakayama Prefecture in western Japan, about 1 hour and 45 minutes by bus from Terminal 1 of Kansai International Airport. Kongobuji Temple is the grand head (central) temple in Koyasan.

Koyasan is in Wakayama Prefecture in western Japan, about 1 hour and 45 minutes by bus from Terminal 1 of Kansai International Airport. Kongobuji Temple is the grand head (central) temple in Koyasan.

There are 117 temples in Koyasan, and 52 of them have shukubo.

There are 117 temples in Koyasan, and 52 of them have shukubo.

First, there is Ichijo-in, which is reputed for its shojin ryori. Many people seem to think that the portions in shojin ryori meals are small. The meals are bountiful, however, with brightly colored and gorgeous dishes placed side by side on tray tables. The dishes are cooked with plenty of seasonal ingredients.

Ichijo-in is said to have been established around the ninth century. The scenery on the temple grounds are a sight to behold, changing from one season to the next. © Ichijo-in

Ichijo-in is said to have been established around the ninth century. The scenery on the temple grounds are a sight to behold, changing from one season to the next. © Ichijo-in

Shojin ryori meals at Ichijo-in are carefully prepared with local ingredients. Some people go to this shukubo just for the food. © Ichijo-in

Shojin ryori meals at Ichijo-in are carefully prepared with local ingredients. Some people go to this shukubo just for the food. © Ichijo-in

Next, if you are interested in Japanese gardens, a visit to Saizen-in is recommended. Visitors to this temple are welcomed by an exquisite garden designed by Mirei Shigemori, a prominent Japanese landscape architect who worked about six decades ago. Tourists come from abroad just to see this garden.

Saizen-in was built over 850 years ago. It is about a five-minute walk from Kongobuji, which is the grand head temple in Koyasan. © Saizen-in

Saizen-in was built over 850 years ago. It is about a five-minute walk from Kongobuji, which is the grand head temple in Koyasan. © Saizen-in

The rocks standing vertically and the green moss contrast beautifully in this Japanese garden designed by Mirei Shigemori. The garden was created around 1950. © Saizen-in

The rocks standing vertically and the green moss contrast beautifully in this Japanese garden designed by Mirei Shigemori. The garden was created around 1950. © Saizen-in

For people who want to experience a more authentic form of Buddhist training, they should go to Joki-in. A two-day one-night stay includes proper zazen practice, meditation and shakyo that are the same as what priests do. They also join in temple cleaning activities.

Joki-in was established in 1156. The main hall was rebuilt in 1870, after burning down in a large fire during the Edo Period (1603-1867). © Joki-in

Joki-in was established in 1156. The main hall was rebuilt in 1870, after burning down in a large fire during the Edo Period (1603-1867). © Joki-in

Guests wear samue, the work clothes of Buddhist priests, during their stay. © Joki-in

Guests wear samue, the work clothes of Buddhist priests, during their stay. © Joki-in

Shukubo are immensely popular for both Japanese and international tourists. What you can expect from a stay at one is the hearty hospitality of priests and a rich experience to relax and ease your body and mind. Which shukubo do you want to stay in?

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