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While traditional inns, or ryokans, are popular among travellers to Japan’s ancient capital of Kyoto, they are often expensive -- some eye-wateringly so. Yet keenly priced shukubo, temple stays that cost about half the price of a ryokan, remain surprisingly under the radar, especially considering they have been providing solace to weary pilgrims for centuries.
Maybe their relative anonymity is because it is difficult to kneel for a long time in the freezing cold at the crack of dawn listening to Buddhist chants. Or perhaps travellers are turned off by the vegetarian breakfast -- not to everyone’s liking -- and the communal baths and toilets.
But some people find this asceticism incredibly appealing. The temples are located in and around exquisite Japanese gardens and temples, many of which are protected by Unesco. After sleeping on traditional tatami mats with only paper-wooden screens for privacy, lodgers can take contemplative morning walks through fiery Japanese maples and karikomi (clipped verdant topiary) before the hordes of day trippers arrive.
Most shukubo are not geared to mass tourism. They only have a few rooms, and they mainly cater to older Japanese religious pilgrims who are interested in Buddhism and Shinto – Japan’s only native religion.
There is little English spoken and it is best if you know basic Japanese etiquette, such as eating with chopsticks, sitting on the floor, and bowing when and where appropriate. There is not any room service, you have to make your own bed, you are expected to check in and out early, and some have set schedules for bathing and dinner. You are not obliged to attend the morning prayer, preformed at dawn, but it is good form to do so.
While the experience can be priceless – a chance to experience a slice of the monks’ lifestyle firsthand -- it does vary. Some have chopstick-thin futons and lumpy, deadweight, rice-husk pillows. Others have serene views of traditional gardens, air-conditioning in the room and wonderful flower arrangements.
A number of temple stays are close to Kyoto’s railway station so it is easy to identify your accommodation when you arrive. They are quiet and tranquil, set away from Kyoto’s busy streets and chattering pachinko parlours – Japan’s answer to arcade games.
Shunko-In Temple is at the heart of Kyoto’s largest temple complex, Myoshin-ji. Centrally located, it has simple rooms, tours in English, meditation classes and free bicycle hire. Taizo-In is another good temple stay, easy to book, with English-speaking staff.
After an hour of rituals at Chishaku-In Kaikan, you can sit with other shukubo guests and look at rare Japanese gold-leaf screens, manicured garden vistas and then tuck into fantastic shojin-ryori – Japanese Buddhist cuisine prepared by monks using seasonal vegetables. There is a big emphasis on tofu and meals exclude shallots, garlic and onion – all of which are considered harmful to the spirit.
When it comes to booking, your best bet is to ask a Japanese-speaking friend to telephone ahead, or ask the proprietor at your Japanese hotel to make the phone call for you. Only a handful of temples provide booking facilities in English, with email addresses and websites. Temple Lodging in Japan provides detailed bus routes on how to get to each temple stay.