Review English Version from Emma (a guest from France)
Testimony of a guest at Kakurinbo in December 2018
<Original in French>
What is the best time to travel around Mont Fuji?
December is the best month: temperatures are usually still pleasant and being the driest month of the year means a cloudless blue sky. Furthermore, between the end of November and end of year holidays, it is low season which is an additional benefit.
Summer on the contrary is very humid and it is more difficult to see Mont Fuji. But it is the best time to climb up the mountain.
Spring and Autumn are also good times to visit but it is high season: Spring is Sakura where the cherry trees blossom, and Autumn is the time of the Momiji (trees with the colors of autumn). The prices of accommodations might be much higher and there will be many tourists.
Minobusan: my stay in a Buddhist temple (shukubo) in Japan
Minobusan, a well-kept secret
Honestly, I hesitated before sharing with you my heart stopper I had for Minobusan. Minobu is a destination off the beaten track which should remain that way. Differently to “spiritual” popular destinations like the Mont Koya (with a wide choice of shukubo for tourists), Minobu has only one shukubo which limits the flow of tourists… and that makes the experience much more charming and authentic. Nowhere else in Japan have I been welcomed with such benevolence and kindness. Looking back still brings tears to my eyes… The inhabitants of Minobu are also incredible and welcoming that they do deserve to be well-known!
If you are looking to revitalize yourself, to enjoy the Japanese nature, to learn more about the Japanese culture and all of this less than 4 hours from Tokyo, then I cannot recommend you enough to come spend a few days in Minobusan. The vegetarian cuisine, the didactic welcome of the Monks, the morning prayers, being face to face with Fujisan from the top of the mountain, the exceptional 14th century garden, the onsen and having the hotel all by myself… This is an experience I will never forget!
Getting to Mont Minobu
Mont Minobu and its temples are located West of Mont Fuji. The easiest way to reach it is to take a highway bus from Tokyo (around 3h30 from Shinjuku station, be aware to book in advance at the ticket counter or online). If you do not have a JR Pass, the long-distance bus is often the cheapest way to travel.
The other option is the train. It is not direct from Tokyo but the JR trains can reach Minobu Station. Between Minobu Station and the village/temple of Minobu, there is a local bus to take (possible to use the Suica card/Pasmo!) because it is a long trek by foot.
To go up to the top of Mont Minobu, there are also two ways: either using the ropeway or hiking (read below).
Minobu is particularly busy during Sakura and Momiji seasons in Spring and Autumn. Early December I was almost the only one here which was very cool! But depending on the season you prefer, I think Minobu is worth visiting all year around!
Since I was only using public transport during this trip, I only stayed in Minobu. But, Minobu being between Mont Fuji and Minami Alps, there are of course many other things to do in the area! If you would like to stay longer in the Japanese Alps, another cool experience is to stay in the oldest hotel in the world at Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan, a ryokan with hot springs opened in 705! Or if you like walking, it is also possible to follow the pilgrimage between Mont Minobu and Mont Shichimen.
My 2-day stay in a Buddhist temple (shukubo) at Mont Minobu
To better experience my stay at Minobu, this article will be written like a travel journal. Mont Fuji being often covered with clouds, make sure to book a few days here to have the best chance to see the scenery. On my end, I was very lucky with the weather (December being a good month, slightly cold but often very dry with a cloudless blue sky), but if I had to do it again, I will spend at least 3 days here to walk a bit more and simply to disconnect at the shukubo.
Day 1: Scouting and relaxation
After a week in Tokyo, I leave very early on the highway bus from Shinjuku. I even get to see Mont Fuji before arriving in Minobu! I instantly know this week would be great but I still had no idea that I will have one of the best experience in my life…
My bus finally arrives in Minobu village. I still need to walk a few hundred meters with my luggage to reach the shukubo. The temple is located a bit uphill compared to the village: it is quite difficult specially with the luggage! But a magical surprise awaits me during my break: a group of does stop and stare at me from the other side of the woods!
I finally arrive in Kakurinbo Shukubo. It is my first time sleeping in a Buddhist temple’s ryokan and I could not have dreamt of a better place! As soon as I arrive, the temple’s monk welcomes me with an incredible kindness even though he does not speak well English. He seems to be spending his days walking his shiba dog between two prayers!
The staff then tells me that a Japanese man and myself are the only two guests tonight and that I will have the ryokan to myself tomorrow. This getaway sounds promising!
Wedding kimonos decorate the hallway that brings me to my room on the ground floor. It is a traditional room with tatami and sliding doors. On the other side, the room opens on the 14th century Japanese garden. I am already in love; it is beautiful! My bed is not made yet, during the day a small table with cushions is in the middle of my room. The hostess offers me to serve me tea which is free all day.
Initially I had planned to do nothing today but since the weather is nice outside, I finally decide to walk around and try my first attempt to see Fuji on top of Mont Minobu.
To do so, I first need to reach Kuon-ji Temple, the main temple at the foot of Mont Minobu but already “slightly” uphill compared to the village. The access to the temple is generally through a huge door followed by a flight of 287 steps. But today I will use the less uphill path to the temple.
Nobody is in the temple; it is quite strange… The weather is still nice but there are more clouds now. Not sure if I will be able to see Fuji today: as I will learn later, end of day is often not ideal to see Fujisan… I buy a return ticket for the ropeway (I will not have time to hike today) for the top of Mont Minobu. But it is a missed attempt! Fuji is covered with clouds unfortunately…
However, I am right on time for prayer at one of the smallest temples in the middle of the forest: drums are echoing everywhere. I also look on the other side of the mountain where we can see a beautiful cloudless view of Minami Alps! I wait while eating a yummy soy sauce mochi hoping Fujisan will appear… with no luck.
Arriving to the village, I continue my walk in the temples until Nichiren-Shonin Mausoleum and the Prayer Hall (Gosoan-ato) at the edge of the forest… Minobu is actually a big temple complex: its original temple, Kuon-ji, established in 1274, is the main temple in the Buddhist branch called Nichiren Shu, which owes its name to its founder, the reformer temple Nichiren Shonin, who is buried on this very spot. He is the one who created the “Sutra Lotus”, whose section is always sung in each prayer of this Buddhist branch. Therefore, it is a very important place for this religion and makes it a pilgrimage site.
After that, I come back to my shukubo to enjoy the place! An accommodation in a temple is actually not very different from a traditional ryokan. Here, there is no curfew and prayers are optional. I am completely free to enjoy the place the way I wish. At nightfall and during the night, the 14th century temple garden is even more magical and peaceful. Everything has a meaning in a Japanese garden: the shape of the pond for example represents the “love” Kanji! An abundantly peaceful place… until a group of wild monkeys appear! Did I forget to mention that does are not the only wild animals in the area? Monkeys arrive at nightfall and in the morning, their noises make it impossible to miss them! But, I prefer meeting them than the other forest inhabitants: the bears…
Now time for the bath! Kakurinbo Shukubo has a small onsen that you privatize at the time you want (usually it is only once a day per person, but since we are only two guests, I can enjoy it as much as possible!). The spring water is livened up by pink grape flavoured bath salts produced locally. A perfect way to relax at the end of the day.
After this very relaxing bath, comes dinner, because half board is included in the price of the room! Traditionally, Buddhist eat vegetarian food so the food served in shukubos is also vegetarian. Here they make a small exception by offering a small portion of fish (no meat) to clients who want it but the food remains 95% vegetarian and everything is delicious.
Every meal is served in beautiful china, sake and a very enjoyable service! I am also able to taste one of the temple’s specialty for dessert, soya soft cream… delicious!
After the meal comes today’s activity! Since I am the only guest (the Japanese man had already gone back to his room), the staff offers to make me try one of their collection kimonos worth 2 million ¥… that is an offer you cannot refuse! I did not think they would take out all the accessories! Another memory I will never forget…
My first day at Kakurinbo Shukubo ends with a silent contemplation of the illuminated garden before going to bed. I need to sleep early tonight if I want to get up before 5am for the morning prayer…
Day 2: Hike on Mont Minobu and view of Mont Fuji!
Unfortunately, today again, my first attempt to attend the morning prayer (which is at the main temple and separated with almost 300 steps from Kakurinbo…) is a failure: torrential rains lash Minobu until 8 in the morning… Hence I decide to postpone my expedition to tomorrow and stay warm waiting for the rain to stop… which is a very good idea!
After a delicious vegetarian breakfast, it is time for attempt n*2 to see Mont Fuji from the top of Mont Minobu!
This time, I walk through the village, which looks just as empty (should this be the only Japanese village without a 7-Eleven?! Looks like it!). After the rain stops, I think it is a good time to face the 287 big stone steps of the Boda-tei, stairs lasting from the 17th century that allow to go from the Sanmon gate (one of the biggest temple gate in Japan) to the main temple and its 5-story pagoda.
The stairs are separated in seven parts that represent the seven stages to enlightenment in Buddhism… It is exactly the feeling I feel arriving at the top! The steps’ abruptness made me think of the Maya Pyramids!
I painfully take 20 minutes to go up the steps and an old man passed me by… he went up all the way without stopping once! Anyway, at this rate, I would have definitely missed the start of the morning prayer! Tomorrow, I will take the “easy” route…
I then take the ropeway again towards the top of Mont Minobu hoping for the view this time. However, I only buy a single ticket: I will walk down. The sky is not completely cloudless but it is normal because of today’s rain. Fujisan requires patience…
I walk around the temple at the top of Mont Minobu waiting for Fujisan to pop up.
Here it is! Patience succeeded: Fujisan is here and cloudless!
Fujisan completes the view: I cannot go back down, it is so magical!
I do not know how long I spend admiring the view but quite a long time… starting to feel hungry, I eat at the ropeway station’s restaurant and once again, the food is delicious, cheap with an incredible view! The moon also makes its appearance!
But I cannot spend the whole day here: I need to walk back down to the village. There are actually two different paths (if you are staying here two days, you can walk on one path per day):
- 5km long East Path one way: it goes past for example the Toshogu and Daikokudo temples, to finish at the back of the main Kuon-ji temple
- 8km long West Path one way: (entrance is close to the ropeway’s arrival) this path goes by a few minor temples (including the Shojuan temple, the others do not even have a translation on Google Maps…) to finally arrive at the Gosoan-ato temple (where I went yesterday). This is the one I chose.
Mont Minobu is almost completely covered by forest and… bears so be
very careful! It is highly not recommended to go hiking without a bear whistle. I do not have one with me because it “usually” is their hibernation time but I soon regret not taking one: every small noise make me scared! I decide to make my own noise (which is supposed to prevent the bears where you are and to make them go away, works like the whistle) and I sing during the whole hike.
The West hiking path does not have any major difficulty. The trees still had some autumn colours and the small temples I walked by were beautiful but the most impressive was the trail in the forest with huge conifers. I also see a doe and her fawn!
The descent is still quite long, it takes me more than 2 hours to walk the 8kms, the sun had already started to set when I arrive… I am quite happy to see the gate separating the first temple with the bottom of the mountain.
The hot bath is well deserved after this long hike!
Dinner course is again excellent. Being the only guest tonight, I have the whole staff for myself, it is great and helps me to relax. I try another local specialty, fermented prune juice.
This time, my meal is livened up by a golden leaves special sake (surprise by my lovely waiter Endo even though I ordered regular sake!)
After the meal, tonight’s activity is origami! With a very good teacher, again Endo, I am doing quite well for a first time!
I get to know Endo a bit more tonight because he is the one who speaks the best English. He tells me that he came to Kakurinbo as a guest last year for a week and loved it so much he decided to stay. I cannot agree more with him… The staff team here is lovely!
Day 3: Morning prayers… and a wish to never leave!
This time is the right one! I get up at 5am to attend the Buddhist monks’ first morning prayer in the main Kuon-ji temple. As I am painfully going up to the temple via the easy route (on the road), a woman stops by in her car and I understand (she did not speak one word of English) that she offers to drive me up to the temple! Of course I happily accept.
I am very grateful to have met her because otherwise I would not have known where to go, or where I could sit, what I could do etc. As a reminder, not many people speak English in Minobu and Internet does not have much information on it.
The prayer releases such a strong emotion for me that I decide not to take any pictures. My personal driver guide even entrusts me to one of her monk friends who shows me how to manipulate the incense during prayers, that we usually cannot do alone. I will always remember this morning prayer followed by the impressive drum beats in this dark night… I even follow my new friends to the second prayer, in a smaller group, in the neighbor temple. You need to live it to experience it.
The lady offers me to bring me back to the village in her car. That is an offer difficult to refuse! The sun had started to rise and light the temple. The monks were continuing their prayers (in private only) with the drum beats in the background that echoed in the whole valley. The monks also give a lucky charm paper at the end.
Words are not enough to transcribe this incredible experience. Japanese people are so welcoming, even in the most remote areas. Do not be scared to meet them, the language barrier is not a problem!
One thing is certain: my breakfast is highly deserved after all those emotions! I am not getting tired of eating the delicious vegetarian food while facing the beautiful garden…
This is how ends my spiritual retreat at Mont Minobu. As I left, the whole team says goodbye and gives me a Japanese word to give to the bus driver to make sure he drops me off at Minobu station. The owner, who keeps a small notebook with all her clients’ stories, tells me I am only her second Belgian guest.
You can book your stay at Kakurinbo Shukubo on Booking.com. Now, there is not much information about Minobu but feel free to use Google Translate, it works well!