Inside Gyokuzoin Temple, Nara's hidden hillside dream sleep

Immerse yourself in Japanese culture with a night at this little-known Buddhist temple, which sits out of sight on Mount Shigi in Nara...

4 mins
Gyokuzoin Temple, near Oji and Osaka in Japan (Olivia Lee)

Gyokuzoin Temple, near Oji and Osaka in Japan (Olivia Lee)

The flames crackled in time with the slow, melodic chanting of the Buddhist monks.

It was 5am and dark outside, but the tall candles lit the temple’s room in an eerie half-light.

The head monk, kneeling on a platform and dressed in flowing gold robes, lent forward to add another piece of wood to the fire.

As the flames grew, so too did the chanting: surging louder and faster until it crescendoed in a frantic, furious beat. And then, all of a sudden, it was silent.

This ritual, designed to expel negative desires, takes place every morning at the 1,000-year-old Gyokuzoin Temple in Nara Prefecture, and something only the overnight guests get to witness.

This is what staying at a shukubo – a traditional temple lodging – is all about: peering behind the curtain at a part of Japanese culture few others get to see.

The bedroom arrangements at Gyokuzoin are simple: you sleep as the monks sleep, on a futon in a tatami room, with a communal bathhouse that has set times for men and women.

You also eat as the monks eat: a beautifully refined vegetarian dinner and breakfast, using seasonable vegetables from the mountain (although you can opt to add meat or fish).

Eat how the monks eat at Gyokuzoin Temple, Japan (Olivia Lee)

Eat how the monks eat at Gyokuzoin Temple, Japan (Olivia Lee)

The temple complex clings halfway up Mount Shigisan, above the city of Oji, around 40 minutes from Osaka. The buildings sprawl across the mountainside, connected by paths lined with over 2,000 stone lanterns.

You can climb an hour higher, to the mountain’s peak, but just walking around the complex is a magical experience, as you spy the swish of a monk’s robes, or listen to the sounds of the pulsating forest.

At night, as you peer over the valley, it’s hard to see where the lights end and stars begin...

Planning your stay at Gyokuzoin Temple

The view from Mount Shigisan (Shutterstock)

The view from Mount Shigisan (Shutterstock)

Flights with British Airways connect London to Osaka. From Osaka, take the JR Yamatoji Line from Tennoji Station to Oji Station (620JPY/£5), which takes 20 minutes.

From Oji, it’s a 15-minute taxi ride to Gyokuzoin Temple (around 2,000JPY/£16). Stays in a private room cost 6,000JPY (£47) per person, or 9,000JPY (£70) with vegetarian dinner and breakfast. 

Visit Gyokuzo's official website to book your stay

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