Sunday, February 4, 2018

Stepping Back a Thousand Years: A Night at Ekoin

-- Susan, every other Sunday

While researching my upcoming mystery Trial on Mount Koya, I spent some time on sacred Mount Kōya, the mountain that lies at the heart of Shingon Buddhism in Japan. While I've posted about other aspects of Mount Kōya in the past, I thought today I'd take you along for a virtual night at Ekoin, a thousand year-old temple where I've had the privilege to stay on two separate trips to Kōya-san.

The front gates of Ekoin

I arrived on a crisp autumn afternoon at 3pm--the temple's check-in time--and passed through the wooden gates to discover a lovely, inviting yard.

An island of peace in a troubled world.

The building on the right is the residence hall.

In the entry, I paused to remove my shoes and leave them on wooden racks designed for that purpose--and to slip on a pair of sandals, placed in the entry for use inside the temple. The resident priests wear these as well (or walk in socks), to preserve the wooden floors.

A priest took my luggage and led me down the interior hall--in the photo below, you can see the way the hall (on the left side of the photo) lies between two sets of sliding panels.

On one side (center frame), they separate the passage from the veranda and yard, and on the other (visible on the upper left side of the photo) from large, group guest rooms and rooms that hold the temple's art and treasures.

My guest room was on the second floor, down a hall with windows that offered a lovely view of the surrounding koya--a saddle on the peak from which the mountain derives its name.

The view from the upper hallway at Ekoin

The guest rooms haven't changed too much in the thousand-plus years since Ekoin's founding--with the exception of televisions (a convenience for modern guests, though I prefer to leave them off and experience the temple without electronic interference), telephones, propane heaters, and electric lights.

My guest room in the evening--after dinner--with the futon laid out for sleep

Although guest rooms are private, toilets are shared, and located at the end of the hall. Shower and bath facilities are also shared (but segregated by gender) and located on the ground floor, near the entry.

A traditional welcome awaited me in the room: a pot of hot water (for making tea) and a traditional pastry filled with sweet bean paste. A delicious, peaceful way to relax and unwind after a morning of hiking and research.

Temples serve delicious tea.

When I finished my tea, I explored the temple and its grounds, and took a walk through nearby Okunoin, Japan's largest cemetery. I returned to my room around 5pm and relaxed until 6, when a priest brought my dinner tray.

Dinner for one - two trays, plus rice and tea. Details two weeks from today.

Shojin ryori, or temple cuisine, is my favorite type of Japanese food. It's entirely vegetarian, and although I'll post in the future about the specific rules that apply, you can trust me when I say it isn't boring (and the photos prove it, too).

After dinner, I spent some quiet time in my room and went to bed early, because nobody sleeps late at a Buddhist temple--including the guests!

The temple bell rang at 5am, waking me from a delightful sleep and warning me that I only had 30 minutes to dress and get to the temple's worship hall for the morning service.

Morning services at Ekoin. The priests invited photos (but I took only this one, beforehand).

After the service, we walked across the yard to the goma hall for the fire ritual (something I've blogged about before).

The goma at Ekoin.

The ritual concluded around 6:45, whereupon I returned to my room to find a delicious breakfast waiting. (More on its contents in two weeks, when I'll post about temple cuisine.)

Unusual to Western eyes, perhaps, but delicious all the same.

Checkout time is 9am (I told you, nobody sleeps early in a temple!) so visitors staying only one night have time for a leisurely breakfast before checking out at the temple office. I left a little early, and headed out to see Danjo Garan, one of the first temple complexes established on Mount Koya.

One of the pagodas at Danjo Garan

Many Japanese temples offer overnight lodging, and although the experience doesn't equate to life in a temple, or even precisely to what a visitor might have experienced hundreds of years ago, it definitely gives at least a hint of what such an evening would have been like--and it also allows us to spend the night in a beautiful, peaceful place where years and the worries of the world can slip away like leaves in a flowing stream.


  1. You have a true gift for bringing the pastoral home to those in need during these spiritually challenging times. Can't wait for the menu news.

  2. Thank you, Jeff. Japan is such an oasis for me, in so many ways, and I'm happy to have the chance to share it, too.

  3. Even though I am on my way to Africa tomorrow, you are making me long for my next big adventure, with you!

  4. What a magical stay. Thanks for giving us a vicarious trip alongside you.

  5. I love Japan too. I taught English there for two years. Your guest room was truly spectacular. Thanks for posting.