Peaceful accommodations for spiritual wanderers
Japan’s pilgrimage routes have a deep heritage that spans over a millennium. These spiritual walks through sacred sites are more about the journey than the destination, giving the wanderer an opportunity to shed worldly possessions and self-reflect. One of the best ways to get a taste of pilgrim culture–with or without completing a full route–is to stay at accommodations along the trails.
Two of the most famous walks with an abundance of lodging options are the Kumano Kodo, a network of ancient trails on the Kii Peninsula south of Osaka, and the Shikoku 88-Temple Pilgrimage, a 750-mile island circuit. The routes are dotted with verdant forests, waterfalls, mountains, and shrines, as well as temples and traditional inns to stay in, but these unique accommodations are also near some of Japan’s major cities. Here’s how to take advantage of them.
Accommodations near pilgrim routes
Shukobo temple lodgings or ryokan inns are the most common types of accommodations found along the routes. The style of the rooms are often austere and traditional, outfitted with thick tatami mats, futons beds, low tables, and fusuma sliding doors. Whether you’re interested in taking a pilgrim walk or simply seeking a serene getaway, the following shukobo and ryokan recommendations are located in towns with access to the trails and other cultural and natural attractions.
Souji-in is one of the more upscale shukobo temple lodgings, located in Koyasan, a holy mountain town that is a three-hour train ride south of Osaka. This settlement is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the birthplace of Shingon (Esoteric) Buddhism, making it one of the most active monastic centers in Japan. In addition to being connected to several pilgrim routes, Koya is home to Okunoin Cemetery. The ancient burial ground is the largest in Japan, with over 200,000 stone tombstones and memorials.
Souji-in boasts traditional tatami rooms equipped with modern conveniences like air conditioning, heating, and Wi-Fi as well as Western-style bedrooms and bathrooms. Guests can feast on shojin ryori, a meticulously prepared multi-course vegan dinner. The healthy meal is served in-room by working temple monks. There’s also an opportunity to witness morning prayers and participate in devotional activities that include transcribing sutras and the meditative practice of tracing Buddha’s image. Rates from US$240 per night.
Kameya Ryokan is a popular overnight destination for pilgrims visiting the Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine on the Kumano Kodo route. Located off the shores of the Oto River in Tanabe, the inn is a very short walk from Sennin Buro, a dammed part of the river that’s used as an an open-air hot spring for weary-footed travelers to unwind. The 150-year-old inn has 10 simple, Japanese-style guest rooms and is designated as a National Cultural Asset. Kameya serves kumano yakusen ryori suppers and breakfasts, a medicinal cuisine that incorporates fresh, local ingredients. Diners can chose among vegetarian, fish, and beef menu options. As an added bonus, there’s a free morning shuttle bus for hikers and pilgrims looking to take advantage of area trails. Rates from US$62 per night.
Ryokan Adumaya is a guest house located steps away from one of Japan’s oldest mineral hot springs, Yonomine Onsen, in Hongucho Kubono. This renowned bathing spot is where many pilgrims perform water purification rituals before starting their journeys on the nearby Akagi-goe and Dainchi-goe trailheads. The facility also has its own indoor hot springs: eight wooden indoor baths and a private open-air one. Adumaya’s tatami rooms are adorned with warm, timber touches that encourage guests to relax and soak in their calm surroundings. Breakfast is included and generous lunch and dinner sets are available for purchase. Rates from US$150 per night.
Kanbayashi Katsukane is situated next to Yasaka Shrine in Tsuruoka and is the closest lodging to Mount Haguro, one of the Three Mountains of Dewa. A path of 2,446 stone steps leads through mighty, ancient cedar trees to a shrine at the summit. Despite traditional quarters and shared bathrooms, the shukobo is modernized with satellite TV, Wi-Fi, and hair dryers. Breakfast and dinner served at the facility feature seasonal vegetables, miso soup, and rice. In June and September, guests can observe Shinto rituals that take place on the property. Rates from US$45 per night.
Nicknamed “the Temple of the Arising Bay,” Tatsue-ji Temple in Shikoku is listed as temple #19 on the Shikoku 88 Pilgrimage. It is one of four ancient seshiko on the route–a spiritual checkpoint where pilgrims were judged on moral purity. Nowadays, tourists can stay with passing henro, pilgrims who dress in white robes and carry staffs. Solemn ceremonial prayers take place daily and guests can roam the tranquil surrounding grounds to meditate or partake in sutra transcriptions. Rates from US$95 per night.
Temple stays near major cities
If you can’t make it all the way out to the major pilgrim trails, there are still several shukobo options closer in to major metropolitan areas that offer a taste of ascetic life.
Shunkoin, a shukobo accommodation, is located within the Myoshinji Temple Complex in northwest Kyoto. The guesthouse was added in 2013 and is equipped with modern amenities like private bathrooms and Wi-Fi. The facility has a shared kitchen stocked with complimentary coffee and tea and offers free bicycle rentals. For a nominal fee, guests can participate in a Zen meditation class and temple tour led by an English-speaking vice abbot. Rates from US$60 per night.
Zenkoji Fuchinobo in Nagano is over 1,300 years old and considered one of Japan’s primary centers for Buddhism. Early birds can watch monks perform O-Asaji services, a sunrise ceremony of prayer and meditative chanting. Vegetarian shojin ryori breakfasts and dinners are served in the room, and guests can choose between a therapeutic soak in a stone bath filled with energizing tourmaline crystals or moisturizing barley rice. Rates from US$90 per night.
Shigisan Gyokuzoin is a 1,000-year-old temple situated on Mount Shigi outside of Nara. The surrounding mountain park is appointed with walking trails, hot springs, pagodas, temples, and shrines that are guarded by colorful tiger statues. The shukobo holds early morning services and can arrange sutra transcriptions, Buddha image tracings, and tea ceremonies. Rates from US$100 per night.