Shukubo is Japanese-Buddhist for temple lodging. They are temples that provide visitors, be it pilgrims or the casual tourist, with night stays and daylight accommodations within their premises. Welcoming all regardless of religious preference, Shukubo provides those who step inside with an opportunity to acquaint themselves with the austere living of Buddhist monks as well as delve into the rich temple architecture.
Apart from this, all incoming travelers are also invited to either participate in or view sacred Buddhist activities like meditation or morning prayers, etc. Not many temples are known to offer shukubo services. These temples are found around the most common pilgrimage trails like the Nagano, Mount Mitake, Dewa Sanzan, Mount Koya, and Kyoto – which is the center of this article.
While not part of Kyoto, the Shukubo on Mount Koya is the most popular and sought-after temple. The monks here are used to foreign company, and you can make reservations without any hassle in English only.
Do note that these shukubo book their rooms in advance. So, make sure you don't arrive at the site before making a booking. You can book directly via telephone, fax, or email. Some temple residents only know Japanese; however, many English-speaking monks will cater to your booking and post-arrival needs. Mount Koya has more English-speaking monks than Kyoto. In fact, they also have a local tourist association that takes your bookings for you. You can get in touch with them on their website or others like booking.com and Japanese Guest Houses.
Night lodging at Kyoto's temples and others usually cost between four thousand and ten thousand yen. However, if you opt for more popular temples that have an abundance of tourists, the amounts can differ and some can be more expensive. You will find these at Mount Koya. Some temples offer accommodations that may be affordable, but there is no food. A lot of these temples accept only cash payments.
These lodgings provide their visitors and guests with a truly authentic Japanese-style experience. The floors are lined with tatami mats, and the rooms have sliding doors, otherwise known as fusuma. The guest rooms are obviously private. However, the sinks and toilets at the temples are often used by everyone, shared by other guests and even monks. This happens in some temples, of course. As for other similar amenities, shukubo lodgings also offer gender-segregated communal bathrooms. These are also, and mind you, shared among all the guests and sometimes monks, too.
Beddings at shukubo lodgings are provided in the form of spreads called futon. These can be spread across the tatami mats on the floor when it’s time to call it a night. The kotatsu or the tables warmed underneath by gas heaters are also offered during winter visits. Most temples are known for providing hotel-like facilities and amenities like TV and Wi-Fi internet. These are not exactly in line with the monks' way of living, some of these temples have adapted to the modern expectations of tourists today, compromising on the original shukubo experience for the sake of visitor comfort. A few temples go so far as offering overnight facilities like those of a ryokan. These include private washrooms, along with some lavish meals.
The food is really the plus point of living in a temple. The vegetarian food, or the shojin ryori, was developed by a group of Buddhist monks based on the ideal that taking the lives of other living creatures is inhuman. This is why the food at these temples, or the shojin ryori, lacks meat and other animal products and is instead rich in vegetables. In place of meat products, the meal is supplemented by plant substitutes like konnyaku (also known as jellied devil's tongue), and tofu.
The food in temples, particularly those of Kyoto, is served in minimalist, small dishes that complement the arrangement of the other ingredients and condiments placed on the table. This arrangement closely resembles the kaiseki ryori offered at a ryokan; the only exception is that the meals at these temples are strictly vegetarian. The ways of the monks are simple, and so is their food. While the meals are only simply flavored and mildly seasoned, they are still delicious. Sake, beer, and several other spirits are also commonly offered, since the drinking of alcohol is permitted in Japanese Buddhism.
Kyoto temples offer their visitors benefits that are rarely available at a commercial hotel. You gain access to certain areas of these temples that are otherwise unavailable to visitors, and you can observe the daily life of a monk. Morning prayer starts from six to six-thirty and continues for half-hour to an hour. There are also several colorful ceremonies – but that depends upon what temple you are in, what time of year it is, and which sect of Buddhism the monks belong to. Also, some monks do not allow guests to partake in their ceremonies, asking them to only observe quietly. Others, however, may even go so far as giving the guests song books and prayer books which allow you to better join them. Incense is also offered for offering small to medium offerings. The best temples are those that provide you explanations of the ceremonies in English.
Apart from all this, Kyoto temples and some others show you their zazen meditation, their copying of sutra, and their waterfall meditation. Some of these meditations may be difficult, as in, they might have complicated movements that require additional guidance. These services come in different forms; advanced courses for those with experience and easy ones for those just starting out.
A shukubo is a sacred place at temples or shrines. You won't have to be extremely quiet and formal, though, but speaking out loud and getting in the monks' way is not allowed. Also, do not start taking pictures at the prayers or any ceremonies as these are where the monks worship and photography is a disruption.
And now for the Shukubo lodgings in Kyoto.
This temple, the Chion-in- Wajun Kaikan, is situated close to Japan's Gion's district, where a Kyoto-like experience can be, well, experienced in terms of shopping and walking around. While the facilities in this shukubo are relatively modern, people often wonder how such a modern place could offer old-school temple amenities. It is Wajun Kaikan's balance of the modern and the antiquated that is what makes this shukubo perfect.
The shukubo of the Chourakuji temple goes by the name Chourakuji Shukubo Yugyoan. It is but a walking distance away from the temple itself. While entering the temple is free, you now have to pay about 300 Yen to worship. The funds gathered are used for the temple's upkeep and for charity work. The Chourakuji Shukubo is very simple yet elegant in that very simplicity. We recommend this temple for people wanting a religious experience and yet be able to enjoy Kyoto.
This Omurokaikan is perfect should you want to tour around three other temples; the Arashiyama, the Kinkakuji, and the Ryoanji. Because of this trifecta of temples, the Omurokaikan is quite the tourists' destination and popular among visitors. The guesthouse of this Omurokaikan has recently undergone renovation. The Ninnaji's Shukubo is rather expensive, prices being 6200 Yen and 9800 Yen. Also, they have strict curfews.
Daishin-in Temple is what can be called a sub-temple. While there are many those in Kyoto, only a few allow visitors inside to visit and experience a Buddhist monk's living. Reasonably priced and with separate accommodations for its male and female visitors, the Daishin-in temple has garden-facing rooms that give you a sense of being one with nature. At a fair price of 5000 yen per person per night, breakfast comes included and dinner. There are other packages, too.
The Konukayakushi shukubo is only a 5-minute walk away from the JR Kyoto Station. The Nijojo-mae city bus will take you there directly. They have private rooms, wifi, bath-ware, and bathing essentials like shampoos, conditioners, soaps, towels, hair dryer, ironing of clothes, et cetera. People have given nothing but positive reviews to the Konukayakushi. The food is pretty good here, too.
The Gotenso shukubo is in Shogoin-Nakamichi in Kyoto. They have a website where you can make bookings and find out additional information via telephone or email. What makes the Gotenso stand out is their facilities for the disabled, something only a few other shukubos provide. These include providing a wheelchair, entrance slopes, braille equipment, and restrooms designed specifically for the physically handicapped.
The Jyourengein Temple is only ten minutes of walking away from the Kyoto Bus station. Accommodations and lodging here are fairly ordinary. People who prefer a simple company with simple means prefer to come here. The monks at Jyourengein are quite friendly and will teach you a lot about how they live their lives. They practice Zen Buddhism here, a school that is quite popular in Japan, or at least better known than its counterparts in the United States.
The Chishakuin Kaikan is one of today's most visited shukubos. This probably has to do with the fact that the shukubo is being marketed as a resort or hotel instead of an actual shukubo. The cuisine, or food, is authentic Japanese and something people travel miles for. The Kaikan is known to house over 100 monks, and they are eager to show you around.
The Toji Rakunan Kaikan is a not-that-popular shukubo. However, some people have commended it for its modern amenities like a smoking area for people who like to smoke, air conditioning, dry cleaning of laundry, housekeeping, etc. While it may also be a three-star hotel, it is one of the very few shukubo that are not that frequently visited.
Nanzen Kaikan has been fully renovated to meet a modern tourist's needs. From high-speed wifi to air conditioning, Nanzen Kaikan is often seen on some travel itineraries. However, this shukubo is one of the temples being marketed and branded as a hotel. When you go inside the Kaikan, the appearance is not so much Buddhist temple as it is Foreign Hotel like you would check into while traveling abroad. It is one of the best places for a shukubo / hotel experience when in Kyoto.
You must be realizing that the farther down we go, we are coming across hotels more and more rather than the traditional shukubo. But it is what it is. While the sanctity of these temples is not at all lost, the people managing them now are capitalizing on their old culture and architecture. The Honganji Monbou is no different than a lavish hotel or resort. From its semi-Western, Western, Japanese, and handicapped-accessible rooms, it has all the amenities of a luxury hotel, and you are guaranteed to have a great time here.
The neighborhood around the Myokenji is charming and peaceful, with several tea houses and onsen lining each side of the road. While Myokenji is mostly known for its exterior, people often pass by the temple as a viewing site and not a shukubo. While it offers the same amenities as its other counterparts, some attractions you will enjoy going to when at Myokenji are the Hommyoin, Jujo-in Temple, the Kotara-no-su, and many others.
As opposed to the more hotel-like shukubo on this list, the Myoshinji temple is the kind that sticks to its origins. It has opted not to capitalize on its rich culture and history, and people wanting a genuine Buddhist monk experience are welcomed with open arms.
The Myorenji temple, which is often confused with the Myoshinji temple, is best known for its beautiful rock gardens, a special cherry blossom that blooms from November to March, and some rare sparrows that you would be lucky to spot.
On our list, the fifteenth and last shukubo is the Kangaan Gepparo, and is yet another simplistic shukubo that provides not the best of amenities but meets your basic lodging needs.