Sleepover: A night in Japan

Hosen-ji Zen Centre
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The Independent Travel

On a mountainside above a quiet village outside Kyoto. More precisely, it is a 15-minute walk from JR Umahori station, 40 minutes on the Sagano line from Kyoto. When you book, the monks will email you a map.

Where is it?

On a mountainside above a quiet village outside Kyoto. More precisely, it is a 15-minute walk from JR Umahori station, 40 minutes on the Sagano line from Kyoto. When you book, the monks will email you a map.

What's it like?

Different. Hosen-ji is one of hundreds of shukubo (temple lodgings) throughout Japan. It operates an open-door policy to short-term residents male and female, including gaijins (or foreigners), be they potential converts or just interested travellers. Some visitors go on to enrol in monasteries. Most, however, simply go back to the rat race feeling better for having taken time out to reflect on life's higher spiritual purpose. It's all very Zen, offering guaranteed calm and tranquillity. But some of the rituals will strike outsiders as rather bizarre. For example, during the nightly zazen session, the Zen master comes round with a large wooden stick (called the keisaku) to administer voluntary thwacks to anyone finding themselves nodding off during their pursuit of inner peace. Most people gratefully accept.

What's its USP?

In the past, a would-be monk had to prostrate himself at the front gate for three days while the resident monks shunned him. He would be condemned to solitary meditation for a further two days while temple denizens spied on him to check on his diligence. Only then was he invited to join the community. Today, you get first-hand experience of monastic life while enjoying the cheapest accommodation in the Kyoto area at Y3,000 (£16) per night including breakfast.

Service?

More like self-service really. The only condition of your stay is that you adhere to temple rules. Temple grounds are a strictly vice-free zone; your attendance is compulsory for 180 minutes of zazen meditation a day; and if you're not flat out on your futon dreaming of Buddha by lights out at 10pm, then the head monk will be asking questions.

Rooms?

Not as such. It's Japanese style: tatami floors with futons. (You can hire bedding for the night for a nominal fee.) As students and monks bed down together in the main temple building, the sleeping arrangements can make an average youth hostel look positively palatial. Still, sharing is probably good for your karma – or something.

Food?

Dinner is the most relaxed time, with everyone pitching in to cook a kind of buffet of rice, vegetables and fruits. The diet is of the strictly vegetarian Buddhist variety (tricky for stifling gas during meditation), and don't even think about cracking open a beer. The shojin-ryori breakfast consists of watery rice, served and eaten to an exacting set of rituals in agonising silence.

Clientele?

Guests are split between those with an interest in zazen and the plain curious. Japanese and Asian nationals form the majority, but some English is spoken and everyone is encouraged to chat rather than obey the strict silence observed in some temples.

Things to do?

The 5.30am alarm call is followed by sutra chanting and t'ai chi to warm up for 60 minutes of zazen meditation. The schedule allocates work around the grounds for everyone in the morning, but in the afternoons visitors are free to walk in the mountains. Although, for some, the temptation to nip down to the local village, neck a shot of sake and wolf down a sly plate of yakisoba could be too much.

Address?

52 Nakajo Yamamoto Shinocho, Kameoka, Kyoto, Japan (fax 00 81 771 24 0378; www.zazen.or.jp). Faxed or emailed reservations are essential.

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