You hear it first; the deep reverberations of the gong interspersed between rhythmic chanting of the buddhist monks. The night sky begins to take on a slightly lighter shade of black as sunrise approaches, and the twinkling stars slowly disappear to be replaced by the warm orange glow of the sun. Walking through the grounds of this Gyokuzoin Buddhist temple at this early hour is a calming and magical experience, a brief window into a little known part of Japanese culture.
Over 1,000 years old, this rarely visited shukubo (temple lodging) sits on the outskirts of Osaka, half-way up Mount Shigisan, and is nestled amongst the dense forest. The complex sprawls across the rolling hills, made up of temples, ponds, gardens, and an accommodation block that houses traditional tatami mat rooms and communal onsen for bathing. Each element of the complex is linked by a network of stone paths that zig-zag through the trees, lined by over 2,000 atmospheric lanterns that flicker at night.
It is a wonderfully relaxing place to stay—and a great escape from Kyoto. The tatami mats in the rooms create a distinctive, slightly earthy aroma. These are topped with roll-out mattresses that are unravelled every evening, which is the traditional and surprisingly comfortable method of sleeping. If it wasn’t for the 4am alarm clock to witness the spectacular morning ritual of monks chanting round an open fire, you could sleep peacefully for days in these quaint surroundings.
Guests live life here exactly as the monks do. There are set times for bathing in the communal onsen, the large hot water bath with bucket-based washing facilities. What may initially feel like a drastic culture shock, to wash completely naked with a group of strangers, this soon fades into insignificance as you slowly lower your shoulders into the hot water of the bath. Steam wafts over your face as you lay to soak, and slowly loosen your muscles for the day ahead.
The cost of accommodation includes three meals a day, again at set times, made up of a beautiful traditional arrangement. Largely vegetarian, with fish options available, it does take a little adjusting to some of the flavours and smells, especially for the breakfast offerings. The tempura vegetables are a particular highlight, but don’t feel too bad if not everything in the colourful spread is to your liking. It being Japan, the temple corridors are obviously lined with vending machines to stock up on emergency snacks if you still feel peckish.
The real highlight, if you can pull yourself out of bed, is the unique opportunity to witness the morning chanting, which is not afforded to the day-trip visitors. As you tiptoe down the stone steps, there is a faint glow of the lights of Osaka down in the valley below. The combination of rising sun and the lanterns creates an eerie atmosphere, but the alluring sounds of the chanting monks pulls you ever closer.
Keen to remain anonymous and invisible, acutely aware this is not a performance put on for my viewing pleasure, I took a seat on the floor at the far side. Above the crackling logs on the fire, the sounds of the chanting grow ever louder as the drum beat begins to accelerate and the volume is ratcheted up.
After an hour, what started as a relaxing hum eventually magnifies into a roaring crescendo until, all of a sudden, it stops. The only sounds now competing with my breath were the sounds of wind blowing through the trees, and the nature of the forest outside.
If you want to find out more about the rituals and traditions that make the Land of the Rising Sun so unique, our Japan Travel Guide will tell you all you need to know.
This content was created in partnership with the Japan National Tourism Organization and Japan Airlines.