Have you ever stayed overnight in a Buddhist temple? It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience that immerses travelers deep in the heart of Japanese religious culture. In the hinterlands of north Kyoto Prefecture, the thousand-year-old Shorekiji Temple has opened its doors to foreign visitors for a luxury stay in its historic halls. Through a program of hands-on activities, the head priest at this temple seeks to bring visitors closer to Japanese Buddhism in a most enlightening way. Let’s take a look at what you can expect during an overnight stay at Shorekiji.
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A Temple in Kyoto’s Northern Hinterland
Shorekiji is located in the small city of Ayabe, just over an hour north of Kyoto City by express train. It’s a region rarely explored by foreign tourists, but noteworthy for the rustic charm that it offers. Farms dot the long valleys between forested hills, and the city of Ayabe itself clings to the banks of the wide Yura River. This is the real Japanese countryside—a place where traditional thatched roof farmhouses stand side by side with modern homes.
The temple sits on a small hill rising over the river, with the main entrance atop a flight of weathered stone steps. Since 942, worshippers have come to these sacred grounds to find comfort from generations of Buddhist priests. Nowadays, the smiling Koshin Tamagawa welcomes visitors, his warmth immediately noticeable. He grew up here and became a priest in his mid-twenties, so he knows the grounds intimately. He can just as casually point out where he played as a child as he can narrate the temple’s long history.
Tamagawa speaks eagerly of his inspiration to create overnight accommodations. “The goal of Buddhism is to live well,” he explains. “If I can share this simple concept with others, then I can enrich their lives in the process.” To this end, he began holding community meals in the temple about ten years ago. These events lifted the spirits of the locals, and eventually led to the restoration of the temple’s hundred-year-old guest quarters in 2017. The invitation for foreign guests grew naturally out of this process of enriching the lives of those who enter Tamagawa’s orbit.
Insight Through Unique Activities
Hosting foreign visitors at his temple allows Tamagawa to share Buddhism in a very personal and engaging way. While other temples give off a feeling of being in a look-but-don’t-touch museum, Shorekiji is inviting in its accessibility.
A great example of this is the large bronze bell that hangs over the entry gate. Traditionally, these bells are only rung by priests to mark the end of the day. In a refreshing reversal, Tamagawa urges his guests to approach the bell and give it a few loud rings. Learning how to properly hit the bell from a priest is a delightful experience. At Shorekiji, this simple act builds a connection between guest and temple and sets the mood for the upcoming experience.
After dropping luggage in the guest quarters—more on these beautiful rooms later—guests are led to the bamboo grove behind the temple for a zazen meditation session. The spongy carpet of leaves on the forest floor is woven through with thick bamboo roots. Tatami mats to sit upon are placed under the swaying trees. Though Tamagawa speaks only basic English, he leads the meditation with simple instructions that guide guests to inner calm. Afterwards, he invites guests to lay down on their backs under a massive six-hundred-year-old tree and simply gaze at the sky to clear their mind. This is a different kind of informal meditation, but a nonetheless enjoyable one.
Shorekiji is a Shingon temple, a sect of esoteric Buddhism that many consider more secretive or difficult to understand than others. Tamagawa works to break this stereotype by introducing visitors to new experiences unavailable in other temples. In the main hall, he lays out a variety of antique musical instruments used in rituals. It’s hard for your mind to not immediately go into museum mode and keep your distance. However, here you are encouraged to touch the objects while the priest explains how to play them with patience and humor. It’s a challenge, but you’ll soon be pounding confidently on the taiko drum to accompany Tamagawa’s rhythmic prayer. This provides a new appreciation for the musical aspects of Buddhism, a key element of worship that travelers are often not introduced to as they visit temples.
Other activities are included in a stay at the temple, like attending a private morning service, inspecting the ritual objects on the main altar, and copying prayers with a brush and ink. There is even an optional opportunity to try on kesaya, the ceremonial robes of a Buddhist priest. Bicycles are freely available to borrow to explore the surrounding area, and Tamagawa can guide guests on a nearby hiking pilgrimage. (Some of these experiences are optional and may require additional fees)
The most breathtaking optional activity at Shorekiji occurs as the afternoon light begins to fade. The priest leads guests across the temple grounds to a small building that houses the altar for the goma ceremony. This ritual, devoted to the fiery god Fudo Myou in this temple, is used to send wishes heavenward via the smoke of an indoor bonfire. At Shorekiji, guests play a key role in building the fire, tossing cedar sticks into the growing flames as Tamagawa recites ancient Indian invocations. This is a rare chance to be a part of this esoteric ritual—so close that you can feel the heat of the fire and absorb the full intensity of the priest’s powerful chanting.
Overnight in Traditional Luxury
With the day’s activities over, guests are free to retire to their suite of minimalist but comfortable rooms. Little has changed here since the temple lodging was built one hundred years ago. All of the original wooden architecture and subtle decorative flourishes are still on display. The sliding doors adorned with paintings of birds are starting to fade and crack, but this only adds to their authentic beauty. A view of the river and mountains beyond spreads out through the enclosed porch with its panoramic windows, offering an enticing spot to relax with a cup of tea. While many temples lodge guests in plain rooms, at Shorekiji you’ll feel like royalty housed in the timeless opulence of a traditional villa.
The expected amenities of a hotel are present in these elegant rooms, and pajamas and toiletries are provided. A modern bathroom sports an impressive bath and shower, perfect for a soak on a cold night. The bedroom is arranged with thick, comfortable futon mattresses and hotel-quality bedding. Tamagawa and his wife, who speaks conversational English, are on hand to assist with any needs that arise during a stay, and they prove to be adept hosts at providing splendid service.
Dining with an Appreciation for Life
Dining in Buddhist temples is often a simple affair; cold tofu, pickled vegetables, and a warm bowl of rice are usually the only comfort you’ll find when sitting down for a meal. Not so at Shorekiji. Guests are encouraged to observe Tamagawa in his professional kitchen, where he changes into chef’s garb and deftly prepares ingredients on the counter. Dinner at his temple is a little different than even what his Japanese guests expect, he explains. He serves a rare Japanese breed of chicken called Shamo, raised on a free-range farm locally in Ayabe.
Tamagawa is careful to explain why he chooses not to follow the standard vegetarian Buddhist menu. “Plants have a life as well, you know,” he offers. “All life is equal and must be respected. We can still enjoy this chicken while being mindful of this fact.” He uses as much of the chicken as possible during preparation, appreciating that it gave its life for us. It’s a unique approach to Buddhist cuisine that he enjoys sharing with guests.
The meal is a veritable feast—a multicourse kaiseki spread with a number of small dishes brought out in succession. The chicken is exceptional, prepared in a multitude of ways that most foreigners will have never encountered. From delicately fried slices splashed in vinegar to a cold chicken salad topped with kiwi, the host shows his skill as a creative chef. The highlight is a platter of small cuts grilled on a sizzling skillet at the table and then dipped into a menagerie of sauces and seasonings. It’s a dining experience that rivals the finest restaurants of Kyoto City, made even more memorable by an elegant setting and the thoughtful philosophy behind the menu.
Breakfast is included and is a delicious and bountiful example of traditional vegetarian cuisine. Vegetarian dinner and other dietary accommodations are available upon request.
In the morning, guests are greeted by golden light shining into the low windows of the bedroom. Dawn breaks in a magnificent display directly across the river. Apart from the cries of birds, it’s a quiet moment that allows one to reflect on their time at the temple.
There is something supremely fulfilling about the experience of staying at Shorekiji, Tamagawa’s reliance on unique and appealing activities to bring guests closer to Buddhism works extremely well, and his charming demeanor plays a large role in making the encounter all the more enjoyable. No other overnight templestay offers quite the same perspective. It becomes easy to understand the elements of his daily devotional life, and to see how he turns even the simplest tasks into a chance to appreciate the world. A stay at Shorekiji will certainly enrich your life, and foreign visitors should seek out this unique opportunity to get an immersive and fulfilling look at Japanese Buddhism.
Price: 40,000 per person
Includes two meals. Maximum group size is 8 people.
Optional goma ceremony is 5,000 yen per person, with a rosary bracelet presented to guests as a gift after the ritual.
Additional optional activities are offered for additional fees.
Located in Ayabe City next to the Yura-gawa River, Shoreki-ji Temple was built in the year 942. The temple enshrines a statue of the bodhisattva Kannon carved by the temple’s founder, Kuya, a famous p …