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Japanese Temple Lodging: Shukudo

Diane M. Sattler, Ph.D.
4 Sep 2015

In some of the most popular cities in Japan, it may be possible to get a unique lodging experience (shukudo) at a Japanese temple that will leave an impression for your lifetime. Although most temples don't offer lodging, some popular pilgrimage locations such as Nagano, Kyoto, Mount Mitake and Dewa Sanzan do. Why would you want to stay at a temple instead of at traditional hotels? Temples can offer an insider's view of Japanese life that visitors may never otherwise get to experience. Experiences such as morning prayers, waterfall meditation or sutra copying may be available. Usually, overnight guests have access to inner temple areas and gardens that aren't open to the general public. Some visitors have found a stay at a shukudo to be even a life-changing experience.

If you're looking for luxurious, five-star accommodations, you'll stay away from temple lodging. However, if you're looking for an authentic experience and a glimpse of how monks live, temple lodging is for you. Usually rooms are private and Japanese style with tatami mats, futons spread on the floor for sleeping and sliding doors (fusuma). However, some lodging is designed for groups, and those have common sleeping and bath areas divided by gender. Even when rooms are private, expect that bathrooms, consisting of toilets and sinks, will be shared, and that baths, segregated by gender, may be shared with monks. A few temples have rooms that are more deluxe accommodations, but they are exceptions. Those can include such amenities as en suite bathrooms and more lavish meals, and come at premium prices.

Temple experiences

  • Morning prayers — typically begin at 6 a.m. and are followed by breakfast. They are held in the temple in a room with the altar at the head of the room. When you sit on a tatami mat or a bench, you'll smell the incense. The typical time of 30-45 minutes passes quickly with rhythmic chanting, ringing of gongs and bowing rituals. After the service, guests may be invited to go to the altar for a personal prayer, but that is optional. Breakfast follows morning prayers.
  • Zazen Meditation — is uniquely Zen Buddist. "Zen" means meditation. If you haven't meditated before, here's quick look at what to expect. Zazen normally is seated meditation, although there are variations where you could kneel, sit in a chair or stand. In any position, your back should be straight to improve breathing. You'll sit in one of the traditional Zen positions, for example the lotus or Burmese position. Your hands probably will be cradled together with thumbs touching. Your eyes may be open, partly closed or closed. First, you'll need to clear your mind by simply counting your breaths up to 10. Then you focus on the silence and allow your breathing become deeper. When your mind inevitably wanders, count to 10 again. After meditating, stretch your legs and arms to restore circulation and go about your day, more at peace with the world.
  • Waterfall meditation (Takigyo) — Mount Mitake in Okutama, one hour away from Tokyo, offers "ascetic training," which is aptly named. One of the options is a three-day course called misogi that is a combination of near-fasting,long trudges up the mountain, and grueling, er, invigorating opportunities to stand under a fast-flowing, heart-stopping, ice-cold waterfall that pelts your body until you're numb and you cry "uncle." Not once, but many times during the experience. Keep in mind that you'll not be paid for this; they actually require you to pay them! So, this is an ancient Japanese ritual, right? Not. It's a relatively new wrinkle in the eternal quest to relieve stress from living in crowded conditions in a huge city. Once you survive the misogi experience and come out safely on the other side, you'll be required to take a hot bath at the temple. Then you'll go on your way with renewed energy and a thankfulness that seems akin to when you stop beating your head against the proverbial brick wall. Seriously. But go…and tell us all about it!
  • Sutra copying (Shakyo) — Hand-copying Buddhist sutras will reputedly heal the body and mind. How could that happen? As with other forms of meditation, it involves steady concentration on the painstaking work that's needed to copy kanji characters. It usually is held in a meditation room or other quiet environment that permit focusing on the perfect formation of the words. That concentration can transport us away from our daily lives and worries. There may be another benny. Shakyo is considered meritorious, bestowing blessings on us and loved ones. If you want to practice on your own at home, sutra texts can be found on the Internet. Hint: you could use a sheet of tracing paper for your initial tries. For those who wish to prepare further, it's also helpful to have a basic understanding of calligraphy brush strokes, which have rituals of order, starting location for strokes, tapering off and so forth.
  • Photo credit [Maarten Heerlien](https://www.flickr.com/photos/65847118@N06/6155529573/)

    Temple lodging overview

    Let's take a brief overview of temple lodging. The following is general information about shukudo for potential visitors.

    Prices per night range from 5,400¥ ($43.47) without meals to 15,750¥ ($126.80) with two meals, priced at the time of this article
    Two meals a day—typically, dinner and breakfast—are included, but they could be optional. All meals are vegetarian and feature rice, tofu and vegetables. They may be the same as the monks eat (shojin ryori), unless you're in a more hotel-like room.
    Some shukudo have English websites with Temple contact information (few do business in English), directions to the temple by train, bus and walking and parking availability.
    Check in time is usually 1500 hrs. Try to check in before 1700 hrs. so you don't miss dinner, which is served an hour later. Check out time is 1000 hrs.
    The total number of rooms range from 13-81 rooms
    Websites will give you a better idea of their venues through exterior and interior photos and sometimes even photos of the décor and food. Some include a personal narrative of an actual stay at the temple, written in English, that may include the visitors' activities at the temple and the local area and specific details about the temple accommodations, location or services.

    Visitor tips

    As mentioned, temple lodging is limited and popular, so get your reservations as early as possible You can make reservations through the local tourist associations, Booking.com, JapaneseGuestHouses.com or Japanican.com. Using a website to make reservations is suggested because few shukudo handle business in English onsite. Be prepared to pay for lodging and selected experiences in cash, as that's all some temples will accept Choose the time of your visit carefully. Winters can be very cold, especially at higher elevations, and waterfall meditation is usually available only during warm weather In the winter, heat is provided by gas heaters and heated tables (kotatsu). If you are susceptible to the cold, plan your trip during the summer or bring warm clothing.

    Don't expect to find TV, WiFi or other hotel-like amenities. Those are extremely rare at temples.
    You may find beer and wine offered at the meals, as Buddhists have no prohibition against drinking.
    Remember that Buddhists do not want to take the lives of animals, so naturally all meals are vegetarian.

    Well, I'm out of space for this article, but next time we'll take a closer look at some of the temples that offer English websites, and I'll give you some helpful links. ‘Til then, it's been a pleasure. Thanks for coming along.

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