So as we continued down the uber-touristy path set for us by Japan-Guide.com (which is a phenomenal site for a first-time Japan visitor – and whose suggested itinerary I followed almost to a T…) we headed south of Kyoto to the mountain town of Koyasan where we had booked a once-in-a-lifetime, one-night-only, tell-your-grankids-esque stay in a Buddhist temple with a bunch of real life monks! Woo!
Hopefully you’re as excited as I was. If not, then you’re like Jenna who despite this was and is incredibly supportive of my nerdy fascinations.
So after a long (expensive) journey into the hills (which involved a cable car that normally I’d describe as perilous but because it was built by the Japanese I knew we had nothing to fear – the people are machines themselves, it’s unreal) we arrived at our temple, Rengejo-in.
We were warmly welcomed in by a pair of real life monks (woo!) who showed us to our room and provided a short tour of the facility. It was a gorgeous, sprawling Japanese temple built in the traditional style – I was in heaven. And I haven’t even seen the room yet…
From the moment our host slid open our room’s traditional Japanese door, the temple nerd inside me began to sing (a Japanese song obviously) – this was exactly what I had been hoping for.
Floored with traditional (catching onto a theme here..?) Japanese mats on which two humble sleeping mats lay next to a floor-level tea table, the room was encapsulated with beautiful gold-plated panels on two of the walls depicting ancient scenes in that unmistakable Japanese style.
Nirvana was official.
We proceeded to zen out for the next several hours, drinking green tea and nibbling on peanut butter crackers while sitting at our floor-level tea table (which just happened to have a heater underneath of it – handy when it gets down into the 30s at night).
After forcing ourselves up and into town for a quick dinner, we returned to the temple for a bath. But not just any bath. Oh no, in Japan a bath is not a bath. A bath is an onsen and it was way better than your run-of-the-mill bath. Albeit way more awkward…
Let me explain.
First, there are separate onsens for men and women so Jenna and I are not together during this process.
As the etiquette goes, you first shower yourself off on a little stool in front of a mirror making sure you get as clean as possible – hair, body, everything.
Then, once you’re squeaky clean, you stroll on over into what is usually a large, crystal clear hot tub in which you sink and relax for about 30 minutes. Sounds pretty simple right? It really is.
But there were two things I forgot to add.
One, an onsen is communal – there are usually several other people partaking in this process alongside you.
Second, you’re naked the entire time.
Yup that’s right – that old guy you saw in the hallway on the way to lunch this afternoon? You are now painfully aware of an oddly place mole that you wish you had no knowledge about.
Thus the awkwardness.
But to be honest it wasn’t that bad – after about 5 minutes you’re too relaxed to notice anything but your limbs tingling in the nearly-scalding water. And when you rise out of the water you find yourself in a strange state of zen which carries on a few hours into the night.
So we found that what we thought was going to be an extremely weird experience turned into one very truly enjoyed – in fact, the onsen at Rengejo-in was the second one we had done! And if there was an onsen in the guesthouse in which I write this post, I’d strip down and be in that bad boy before you can say ‘samurai sword’!
So once our naked zen meditations were complete, we popped on our traditional (yup) Japanese ‘pajamas’ (which is what our host settled on calling them after she couldn’t communicate their actual name) and fell into a deep slumber that only bunking in the mountains with monks can provide.
The next morning we awoke at 5:30AM to join the monks in their morning prayer. It was a really cool experience – they chanted their holy words as we sat there legs crossed and eyes closed, trying to lose our sense of ‘self’ by clearing our minds (harder than it sounds).
The experience though, seemed to be heightened when Jenna and I noticed a bright light being shown on us in what was otherwise an almost completely dark room. I thought it was cool – maybe some sort of symbolism with the sun coming up soon? Trying to stay focused I didn’t open my eyes and the light eventually faded away.
But then it came back a minute later in another corner of the room. Now my interest was piqued. I opened my eyes expecting to see a young monk responsible for the artificial light but to my surprise it was not a monk, it was a television lighting man…and an entire television crew, who had been filming us the entire time.
Turns out there was some reality TV star staying in the temple with who happened to wander into our meditation session, TV crew in tow. We never found out what show it was but just by sheer quantity of times were we on camera around the temple after that, I can only assume we’re now Japanese celebrities.
Post-meditation we snagged a quick breakfast and headed out on a 4km hike to the Japan’s holiest grounds – the eternal resting place of Kōbō-Daishi, the founder of Buddhism in Japan.
Along the way – the entire hike is through a massive, ancient graveyard – are some of the most somber, beautiful sights we were to see in our entire trip. There’s something about moss, old stones and gloomy weather that make for some powerful photos.
We arrived at Kōbō-Daishi’s hallowed grounds, attempted a few Buddhist prayers (hope we didn’t offend anyone with our poor etiquette) and headed back to town to catch our train to Hiroshima.
So it was just a short stay we had in Koyasan but one that fulfilled many of my nerdy Japanese dreams…including getting back in an onsen.