The small mountain town of koya-san, several hours south of Osaka in central Japan, has been attracting pilgrims since the 9th century, when Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi founded the Shingon school of Buddhism among its ancient cedars. Today, though still one of the country's holiest sites, Koya-san is attracting visitors for less pious reasons: the temple accommodation run by its monks.
At first glance, you might wonder why. Temple rooms are minimalist, with tatami mats, low tables, floor cushions and futons. With communal washrooms the standard, privacy is at a premium too.
But then comes the food. The dinner and breakfast, in the shojin-ryori vegetarian style traditionally eaten by Japanese monks, wouldn't look out of place in Kyoto's finest kaiseki restaurants. Served on richly colored lacquerware trays, the meals feature an array of subtly flavored small dishes mostly incorporating tofu and local vegetables accompanied by more filling fare, like handmade soba noodles kicked into life by grated wasabi.
Then there's the spiritual side of a visit. At Eko-in, ekoin.jp, one of some 50 temples in Koya-san that offer accommodation, guests can join the monks in the inner temple as they recite their early-morning sutra amid a thick haze of incense. Like many of the other temples, Eko-in also allows guests to observe the morning fire ceremony, a spectacular affair driven to a crescendo by droning, trancelike chanting as a monk burns a piece of wood for each of the 108 defilements to be overcome on the road to enlightenment. Don't fret: you're not expected to tackle them all this vacation or even this lifetime.