Travel to Kyoto and find your spiritual side at a Buddhist meditation guesthouse

Metro UK, 18 Apr 2013

Kyoto, Japan -- Reverend Takafumi Kawakami is a very modern priest. When I arrive at Shunkoin Zen Buddhist temple, hidden deep in Kyoto’s serene Myoshinji temple complex, we don’t discuss Buddhism; we talk about Twitter, specifically his recent tweet about the first signs of spring.

<< Reverend Takafumi Kawakami offers a very modern approach to spiritualism (Picture: Alamy)

He tells me it is one of the best times of year to visit the old city, famous for its palaces, wooden merchant houses and geishas. The cold bite of winter releases its grip, the cherry blossom crowds come and go, and the city takes on an emerald hue.

Tonight I am staying in Rev Kawakami’s new eight-room guesthouse, The Cave Of Enlightened Dragon, which sits next to the main building, parts of which were built a mind-boggling five centuries ago.

As I check in, he offers me an espresso and tells me about the temple’s free wi-fi and bicycle rental.

I wasn’t expecting this, I tell him. Most don’t, he replies.

I am given a few rules: keep a respectful silence after 10.30pm and be prompt for tomorrow’s meditation session. Then he leaves me standing in the deafening silence of his temple, feeling a little like an intruder.

Temple lodging, or shukubo, is a very special way to see Japan’s simple, spiritual side. Most stays include vegetarian food and compulsory participation in morning Buddhist services.

Shunkoin offers something in-between. It is the only temple in Kyoto that offers classes in English and, although it doesn’t serve food, guests are given full access to a modern kitchen and a map pinpointing nearby supermarkets.

The meditation sessions here begin at 9am (others can start at an eye-drying 3am) and at just £43 a night, it is also something of a bargain.

So after a late-night wander around the complex grounds, with only a monk on a bike in my sights, I retreat to my small room, containing a mattress, desk and a bathroom, and sleep soundly for a long time.

The next morning, after a breakfast of rice balls, I meet my meditation companions. A young woman from Toronto tells me she has dipped a toe in these Zen waters but the two American students, who hilariously boast of food poisoning (‘I ate so much weird food I was sick!’), are clearly first-timers.

We sit cross-legged on cushions and listen wide-eyed as Rev Kawakami tells us how Buddhism and Shinto, Japan’s native religion, live harmoniously side by side, and how meditation helps in the 21st century.

‘Meditation provides time for your brain to digest the overload of information it constantly receives, which helps us keep an inner peace,’
he tells us. ‘It reorganises thoughts and helps us to be more objective and mindful.’

After our first 15-minute session, we all admit we didn’t have much luck clearing our minds. ‘It’s normal to have random thoughts and to see images, so focus on your breath and the rest will follow,’ he advises.

I do as I am told and the next 15-minute session passes in what feels like a minute. I bask in an incredible calmness and, judging by everyone else’s faces, so do they.

Rev Kawakami then leads us on a short tour and we hear his story. He studied psychology and economics at Arizona State University and started thinking about the role of religion in modern society after 9/11 so changed his degree to major in religious studies. He then committed to one year’s training at Zuiganji Monastery in Miyagi prefecture.

He is a staunch supporter of Japan’s LGBT community, a sector of Japanese society that silently struggles. He is also, I quickly discover, a clever businessman.

There are 70,000 temples in Japan but economists have calculated that by 2050 there will be just 10,000 left because of expensive running costs.

Rev Kawakami needs funds to keep Shunkoin running so he came up with this overnight meditation package. Do the other 45 temples in the complex disapprove? ‘Not at all – they think it is a fascinating way to reinvent the temple,’ he says.

I couldn’t agree more.

£43 per night for accommodation and meditation.