If you are go to Japan, you absolutely must stay at least one night in a Buddhist temple; I did it and it was amazing.
One of the places in which to enjoy this experience is Koyasan, a monastic town situated on Mount Koya at an altitude of around 900m, where there are a large number of temples in which you can stay overnight.
I was in Kyoto, which I used as a travel base in which to leave my luggage. From there, I booked a night on Mount Koya in Fukuchi-in, a temple which I chose, after a lot of browsing, because I don’t speak Japanese and it was the only place with its own website and, therefore, online booking system; for all the others, you had to book via telephone.
The best way to reach Koyasan is to take the train from Namba Station, in Osaka, directly to Mount Koya, a journey which takes you through the surrounding mountains, offering spectacular views, right up to the mountain top; from here, it is just a 10-minute cable car trip to Koyasan.
As I stepped down from the cable car, I was enveloped by the most incredible atmosphere: surrounded by forests of great, towering trees, it is a place untouched by time, where you can breathe deeply that quiet sense of freedom that each of us possesses within, yet has probably lost.
I felt an amazing sense of excitement, I wanted to enjoy the experience to the full: when I arrived at Fukuchi-in, I was welcomed by the friendly monks, who showed me around the whole building, built entirely of wood, and around the temple, in which I was invited to attend the 6am Buddhist prayers the following morning.
All of the rooms are furnished with tatami and futons, with a welcome drink of green tea on a small table, and a yukata (cotton kimono worn in the bedroom), toothbrush and towel.
After drinking my green tea, full of excitement to be in such a perfect place, I went straight to the Zen garden, which is amazing in every way… I sat down to take it all in and the calm and silence made me feel absolutely at peace.
No sound at all… only silence, interrupted every now and then by the chirping of birds.
A great dinner with rice, tempura, udon soup, tofu and other things that I should remember, and, to drink, an ice-cold Asahi.
Staying in a Buddhist temple means you have to adapt a little to the monks’ way of life: therefore, vegetarian dinner and breakfast, which I would recommend even to those who don’t like vegetarian food.
Once dinner was over and I had relaxed a little in the Zen garden, I sank back in the hot water of the truly magical outdoor Onsen (thermal baths where you have to wash before you get in).
The next morning, I was up at dawn to attend the Buddhist prayers. I must say that I was surprised and disappointed to see that, despite being non-Buddhist, I was the only Westerner there; I don’t see the point of staying in such a place and not experiencing this important part of the day.
It was really strange; I was entranced whilst listening to the monks reciting their prayers, followed by the sounds of the Tibetan singing bowl – truly captivating and definitely recommended.
Immediately after the prayers and my vegan breakfast, I set off to discover Koyasan: I visited the Danjo Garan area, with the Kondo Hall and the great, red Konpon Daito Pagoda, as well as the most sacred Japanese graveyard site, Oku-no-in.
All of the photographs were taken using natural light, with 24-70 and 14mm lenses in my Canon 5D Mark II.