Kyoto temple stay: meditation & dark gardens

✍️: Jan 📸: Erin & Jan

One of the coolest experiences we’ve had so far was taking a meditation class and staying overnight at the Shunkoin Temple, a Zen Buddhist temple in the hills of Kyoto. We wanted a break from the nonstop touring of the city’s temples and shrines (more on that later ) to learn more about the history and beliefs behind them.

The deputy head priest, Takafumi Kawakami, offers meditation classes and opened the temple to overnight stays as a way to introduce Zen meditation to anyone who’s curious. He does a great job bridging the gap between cultures for us Westerners, in part because he lived in the U.S. for a few years and speaks fluent English.

Meditation room at Shunkoin Temple


Our meditation class started at 9:30 a.m., so at about 9:15, we walked over to the meditation area. We chatted briefly with some of the other attendees (a pair of Canadian couples, and a couple from California made eight of us for that morning’s session). The class lasted a little over an hour and was followed by a small cup of matcha and some sweet senbei.


The first 30 minutes of the class was primarily a discussion about the root causes of human suffering and the purpose and practice of meditation. The purpose, in short, is simply to be more mindful – to begin to introduce into your emotional experiences a bit of self-reflection. Moments of happiness, frustration, sorrow, or peace are peaks and valleys on a continuum of experience, and do not exist separate and apart from each other. I can feel happy because I contrast that feeling with sadness. This is why it’s not possible to live on a plateau of happiness. So rather than spend my life chasing the emotion of happiness, take note of it when it happens and enjoy it. Suffering is the failure to live up to the (futile) expectation of constant happiness.

Similarly, we sometimes feel frustration because we can remember a contrasting feeling of successful accomplishment of a task or goal. To expect that everything we set our hands to will be executed flawlessly is to set ourselves up for misery. There will be always be hurdles. Wallowing over each hurdle and complaining that you must overcome them only introduces more self-imposed suffering, and ignores the possibility that your eventual feeling of accomplishment may be sweeter for each hurdle successfully overcome.


In terms of practice, we were asked to shed our pre-conceived notions of what meditation should look or feel like. One should always sit in the lotus position, wrists resting on knees, palms up, thumbs and forefingers forming a circle and the remaining three fingers splayed, with your eyes half-open / half-closed. And… now you’re meditating.

Maybe, but we were encouraged to ignore those preconceptions. If we wanted to, we were offered the option to get up off the cushions and sit on chairs, because, as you quickly learn upon visiting Japan, Westerners do not live in a “floor-based culture”. For example, most of us can’t do the “Asian squat”. Unless you do a lot of yoga, your hip flexors are not probably flexible enough to be comfortable in the lotus or half-lotus position. And if you’re not comfortable when you’re meditating, you’ll find yourself focusing on how uncomfortable you are.

So find a pose you think you can hold comfortably, set a timer for 20 minutes, and begin. Inhale slowly. Fill your lungs from the diaphragm. Exhale even slower. When your lungs are empty, hold still for a few seconds. Repeat. Focus on your nostrils and how the air feels on them when you inhale. Keep your focus there. Think about your breathing. We breathe all day every day, but we rarely think about it. So think about it. Other thoughts will come. That’s fine. Acknowledge them. Look at them with your mind’s eye. Let them go and return your focus to your breathing.

Suddenly there is a bell. 20 minutes have passed. I can’t really describe the post-meditation feeling. I felt refreshed and quite relaxed. But there’s something more to it. It’s not ‘inner peace’, but it is peaceful. It’s not quite ‘satisfaction’ but it is satisfying. And it did stay with me for the rest of the morning and into the afternoon. (Later that afternoon we visited Kinkaku-ji temple, and if all the walking we did that day didn’t cause the effects of meditation to dissipate, then the crowds and the rather gaudy gold-leaf ‘gradiosity’ of that particular temple definitely did the trick!)

Evening at the garden

Among the other perks of staying overnight at the temple: private nighttime views of the garden! A welcomed quiet and stillness after touring various temples most of the day.

If you’re ever in Kyoto, we highly recommend spending a night or two here if you have time. You’ll also have easier access to sights in the northwest side of the city, which is a hike from the hotels and hostels in the central part of Kyoto.

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