Visiting the holy site of Koyasan is not complete without an overnight stay at one of the temples. There is a wide selection of temples and I believe that your experience at Koyasan is strongly influenced by the individual temple you choose to stay at.
Let's take Hojo-in (宝城院), a truly original temple tucked away in a small side street, just behind the Grand Pagoda (Konpon Daito) but away from the main road (which by the way can get really busy during the weekends and peak season in general). The temple's location guarantees the peaceful and quiet atmosphere you would expect from a temple stay, and for me it definitely has got the Zen spirit I was hoping for.
It is much more than just another type of accommodation, as it gives you the chance to step into a completely different world. You will have to respect the strict schedule of the monks who run the temple and adapt yourself to it, but it is definitely worth it. Don't miss the morning prayers, although they are really early in the morning and it might be freezing cold; however, it will be an experience you never forget.
The monks don't just have a strict schedule, but everything they do is so impeccably planned and performed. When we arrived, there were exactly two pairs of slippers waiting for us on the stairs at the entrance of the main building. Coincidence? Of course not. They know exactly who arrives at what time and they neatly arrange the slippers for you.
The old part of the temple building is the one to aim for. (There is also a newer annex building, which is a little more standard). Our room in the old part had a traditional Japanese feel, with impeccable tatami flooring, beautiful sliding doors with a golden shimmer, wonderful antique decorations and a view onto the garden, just like in ancient times. Impeccable again.
Then, the food, shojin ryori, traditional Buddhist Zen cuisine. I tried it before, but the meals at Hojo-in have topped everything so far. No meat, no dairy products or eggs, no strong spices; however, you know what, I didn’t miss anything of that. I am not vegetarian or vegan and was therefore expecting some food cravings, but nothing. The meals were incredibly balanced and satisfying; the original taste of the ingredients came through in every single dish. No wonder, everything is freshly prepared every day and the dishes follow the seasonal produce. The monks also know how to present their food—yes, impeccable again. Pure dedication in everything they do.
All temple lodging at Koyasan must be booked via the Koyasan Tourist Association. They have a very comprehensive English website, which lists all the available temples and their facilities, and you can indicate your preference with regards to a specific temple.
We paid about ¥11,000 per person and per night, including breakfast and dinner. For the quality we were offered in terms of accommodation, food, culture and general atmosphere, that was very good value for money. I don't think it gets any more original than that.