I first read about staying overnight in temples in Japan from Don George, who worked with Lonely Planet for years and has been a travel writer since before I was born. He has a strong connection to Japan and wrote about how you haven’t really experienced Kyoto unless you have stayed in a temple overnight.
He was right. Japan is famous for its temples and in Kyoto alone there are more than 1,600 temples. As Buddhism is one of the two main religions in Japan (the other being Shintoism or Shinto), these places of worship can be found in nearly every city.
As travellers we always just pop into these sites during the day – I have done it myself time and time again in Japan. I visit a particular temple because it looks beautiful or because of its rich history. When I started planning my second trip to Japan, I organised visits to cities such as Nikko with the solo intent of seeing one shrine. This time I was on a mission to find a temple in Kyoto where I could stay overnight and pray with the monks in the early morning.
Eventually, I found Ninna-Ji Temple, an UNESCO World Heritage-listed temple with strong ties to the Imperial family since its establishment in 888. It ticked all the boxes: it was an authentic Japanese temple, English-speaking hosts were available if you arrived before 6:30pm, it was accessible from the city centre, it offered private rooms (with a shared bathroom), guests are welcomed to join in the morning prayer, and breakfast could be included. Take my money! The website had an English translation guide, so I committed and booked.
I fantasised and romanticised about the experience in my head for months. I would talk to my clients about this epic trip I had planned and would be sure to drop it into almost every conversation. In my head I thought to myself, “Yeah, I’m a cool, culture- seeking traveller”. I was proud to be doing something a bit random and off-the-beaten track in Japan.
On check-in day, my partner, Rashaun, and I arrived at Ninna-Ji Temple feeling nervous that we hadn’t arrived at the right place. My mind was quickly put at ease funnily enough when the gentleman sporting a yukata at the front desk pointed out we had made the classic Westerner faux pas of stepping inside the temple with our dirty shoes on. Yes, this was the place, I could feel the authenticity.
Once checked in I felt the need to constantly be quiet and delicate when in the temple. I found myself tiptoeing to our room and trying to lift my case up only a little, so it wasn’t so noisy.
Our room was huge, and it was freezing cold. I was relieved to see a heater ready and waiting on the wall – not very traditional but I can forgive them because this cold-blooded creature needs basic necessities, right? The room could have slept up to six people on thin futon mattresses, which were placed on the bamboo woven floor. It contained a sparse amount of furniture that consisted of a coffee table for tea and eating meals, a small fridge with a TV on top and our designated yukatas. The shared bathrooms were just down the hall and separated by gender.
It wasn’t the best night’s sleep I’d ever had, but it wasn’t the worst either. There is a level of comfort in a hotel that I just couldn’t seem to get in the temple. I kept jostling myself awake and checking the time, though this didn’t really have anything to do with practically sleeping on the floor but more so to do with my fear and anxiety of sleeping through the alarm.
Morning arrived, though it was still dark out, and we had made our way to the lobby to put on our geta, traditional wooden thongs, before walking to the main temple. Rashaun chose thongs with a wooden heel base, so what should have been a quiet walk was actually minutes of walking next to what sounded like a very heavy-footed drag queen.
As we walked up to the main temple, we followed an old monk in his traditional dark-yellow robes and saw to our right, a pagoda with about 10 monks chanting. The sound travelled through us and resonated throughout the area as we walked past – that moment really let it sink it, the morning I’ve been waiting for was finally here.
Once again, I found myself trying so hard to be quiet but epically failing. When I walked into the temple I sounded like a bull in a china shop as we walked across the creaking wooden floor. Once we had sat down, a Japanese man who spoke English leant across and said: “Don’t worry, I’ll tell you what to do”.
The temple itself was no bigger than a tennis court with most of it cordoned off as a “do-not-cross zone” and no pictures or videos were to be taken inside in respect for the ceremony. The sun hadn’t come up yet so I couldn’t see much of what was inside. The only other standout feature I could see were the three golden Buddhas lining the back wall, with the biggest in the centre, of course. There were about 10 tiny candles offering some light, unless you counted the embers from the burning incense at the base of the temple.
The monk spoke a few words to the eight of us who sat in front of him before he turned his back to start the ceremony. The two monks sat adjacent to the two smaller Buddhas in the room and began to chant their prayer. They took turns chanting, but would chant in perfect unison in specific periods of the prayer. Although there were only two monks, when you closed your eyes you could be forgiven for mistaking the two for a choir as their powerful chant resonated throughout the temple. Both monks sat with large books in front of them and continued to turn the pages as the ceremony went on while one of them would occasionally strike the small gong next to him.
We all took turns sitting in the centre of the room to pray. Part of this process was to pass your hand like a fan over the burning incense to help spread your prayers. I am not religious, so this was more of a 'thanks-for-having-me' moment than a time for praying. The whole event was over in just 30 minutes. The older of the two monks spoke in Japanese for about 20 minutes after the ceremony to the group. I truly wished I spoke Japanese in that moment so that I could have taken in everything that he was saying.
The sun was now just up, and I could see the inside of the temple properly. The space was filled with smaller Buddhas, brass symbols and malas (praying beads). As we walked out of the temple and back towards our beds, I felt very at ease and calm with still not another soul around as we took in the morning’s peace and quiet (minus shoes).
When we stepped back inside, we are almost instantly greeted by our traditional Japanese breakfast meticulously placed and organised. We sat down on our pillows surprisingly hungry for so early in the morning. This breakfast was a lavish feast: miso and rice, pickled cabbage, a small bowl of vegetables. There was an omelette-like cake on offer too. Finally, a broth with tofu and greens bubbling away on top of a burner. My first strictly Japanese breakfast.
As we were eating I noticed the man who had spoken to us in the temple. As we got chatting I found out the man was a teacher, trialling the temple for an overnight school trip. He told us the monk who spoke in Japanese had been telling tales about how we need to work hard to be better people and that a simple act of kindness can do so much for humanity.
Check-out was early so we got ourselves properly dressed and ready to go. After a 15-minute walk down a gradual sloping road we found ourselves at the nearest train station to take us back to Kyoto Station.
Did the experience leave me feeling spiritual? To be honest, no. It did, however, give me a better connection to Japan and the people who live there. I felt a stronger cultural connection because I don’t think after staying in a temple you can look at temples the same way again. It was an incredibly unique experience.
I hope my temple stay experience will motivate other people to push the boundaries to experience a countries culture while travelling. Most people will visit a country just once in their lifetime, so why not get off the beaten track and try something you would never have the chance to do at home?
All images: Rashaun Catando