Another set of great reader suggestions led us to spend two nights at the Shojoshin Temple. Bobbi recommended Japanese Guest Houses as a source for booking traditional Ryokan hotels online and two anonymous readers recommended Koyasan.
It was quite the trek from Kyoto to the sleepy mountain town. Seven different transit lines from subways to trains to trams that are nearly vertical to go up steep hills and buses, with lunch at a stand-up ramen counter and lots of beautiful scenery along the way.
We arrived with light snow coming down on the town and found Shojoshin-in quickly. Our temple lodgings were super adorable. A small room with futon beds on the tatami mat floors, a living area with a low table equipped with a built in heater and blanket overlooking a balcony and koi pond, a sink, shrine and closet. The sliding doors don't lock and there's wifi - very Japan. The monks come to put giant hot water bottles in the beds in the afternoon and leave you fresh green tea along with small sweets.
It was definitely cold, even though we were only about 2,500 feet up and a few hours from warm Osaka. We pretty much wore all the clothes we brought when out exploring:
The temples were lovely and an interesting contrast to those in Kyoto. Matching the scenery, the paintings included lots of pine and winter scenes. Kongobuji Temple had a huge rock garden and the loveliest screens.
Dinner is served by the monks in your own private dinning room at 5:30. More about the food in a minute. After dinner, you can go to the bath until 9:00. Scrub clean first sitting on a small wood stool and then soak in a deep cedar tub filled with hot water. The hotel provides clean yukata robes and jackets for bath time.
To bed early because mandatory prayer service starts at 6:30. Waking up in the dark, we bundled up and went to the frost-covered temple across the grounds. It was so cold during the 45 minute service you could see the monk's breath as they chanted in the dark, incense-scented room - an image I'll never forget!
Breakfast is served immediately after the prayers, which brings us back to the food. The vegan, tofu-based shōjin-ryōri cuisine was outstanding. Tradition dictates that the monks can't waste any ingredients, must use five colors and five cooking styles, can't even use onions or root vegetables - anything that would kill a plant - but the end result is anything but plain. Dinner was about 16 different small dishes each night, the first night with a lemon theme and the second with mushrooms. Breakfast was miso soup, a fried tofu "omelet" in broth, pickles, cold cooked greens, sweet beans, rice, nori strips, soy sauce and tea. Maybe my favorite breakfast ever:
We also explored the cemetery and temple at Okunoin, nestled in a deep forest with serious moss, and checked off most of the rest of the town's temples and gardens. Koyosan was nearly deserted when we visited, very relaxing.
I definitely recommend a stay at Shojoshin-in for anyone going to Japan! The monks are so friendly, the setting is unbelievable and you'll never forget the food.