Helping the temple kitchen in Japanese holly mountain | 「荘厳な高野山」をお寺の台所から見てみた

Helping the temple kitchen in Japanese holly mountain

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“Maido, ōkini!!” (“Thanks” in the western-Japan dialect)
Delivery guys shouted and left the kitchen from the back door. We opened the boxes to check if we have everything to prepare the dinner. Sweet potatoes, aubergines, and Shitake mushrooms are for Tempuras, and a bucket of sesame tofu, the famous delicacy of this mountain.

Mount Koya is located in Wakayama Prefecture in the middle-west of Japan’. There are over 50 temples covering over Koya town located on the mountain top. I was standing in the kitchen in one of the temples. It was the season of Sakura (cherry blossoms) and I came to help the kitchen. It was the town’s busiest time of a year.

Shukubo – Temple Lodging

Traditionally, the temples in the town had been used as lodges called Shukubo, to serve for monks and pilgrims from far away. Nowadays, they have been welcoming many tourists from all over Japan and overseas.
The guests can enjoy unique experiences, such as attending an early morning prayer, meditations, and teachings by monks. Also, Shojin-Ryori, the vegetarian meal eaten by monks while in training is the main attraction. Usually, a meal consists of Goma-Dofu/sesame tofu (pudding-like sesame curd), Vegetable Tempuras (Frites) along with rice and miso soup.


Working in the kitchen, I was fascinated by the beautiful preparations of the dishes.
But at the same time, I had a sense that something was different from what I expected.
“Is this just a fancy hotel…?” That’s what I felt.

“It is supposed to be something far from worldly.”, I murmured.
Mount Koya has been worshipped as a sanctuary since a great monk Kūkai has founded his school Shingonshu in 9th century.

I came here in search of clear air, and the silence away from the hustles of the world below. And actually, I expected to have some spiritual experiences.

However, working inside the temple, what I saw was something more mundane of the little cultural town, where the local people work for the traditional business called “Shukubo”.

The ordinary life of a monk

The life of the monks seems to have so much less discipline than I imagined. Many of them have one-year intensive training in the mountain. And after that, they can eat meat, drink alcohol, work in the commercial industry or start a business, get married, and have kids. One day, I talked with one monk and he explained about this in such a relaxed way.


“There is nothing wrong with a monk’s marriage. Because marriage and family problems are common for many people. And as a person to help them from these sufferings, I cannot give advice if I don’t know anything about having a family

Of course, his comment would not represent all the monks. But, I was impressed by how he finds his way of self-practice in ordinary life.

The three cheerful women

You might think that temples are operated only by monks. But, they are greatly supported by the local women. They work for the neighbouring temple as it is understaffed. There were three ladies aged around 50s to 60s in the temple I worked. Working with them was so impressive, as they purely enjoy working for the guests, although no guests would know that they are the ones who prepare the delicious meals.


They run across the large temple buildings, vacuum and wipe the tatami mats in guest rooms, and come back to the kitchen to prepare dinner.
”Take a rest! You’re hard-working!” sometimes they shout to each other to encourage. Their hands were small and chapped, but firm.
Their cooking was loving and hearty. One day, one of the women picked a bunch of fresh mint from her garden to serve it on fruit bowls for the guests.
“I thought it would be prettier with a bit of mint. The customer would be happy.” She smiled.

After they prepared the dinner, they clean the kitchen and go home. When the guests arrive at the dining hall, it is the turn for the monks to serve the guests. We can rarely see the women. They are the great helper behind the scenes.

Through the work, I got to see the other side of this sanctuary mountain. It’s a mundane scene of Koya, where the monks, the families, and local people are working together, complaining about how busy it is, but still being willing to keep this cultural heritage. It’s certainly not what I expected at the beginning.

But, in a way, it reminded me that spirit is in something mundane.


Shukubo lodging has been getting more popular, but they are concerned for scarcity of staffs as the number of young people to help the lodging are decreasing. It’s been a thriving business, but maybe too commercial and hectic. I sometimes worry about the women wondering if it’s too busy for them.

If you ever visit there, take a moment to feel the good intentions of the hard workers behind the beautiful sceneries.


Back to English

「まいど、おおきに!」― 威勢の良い声をかけながら、食材の配達がひっきりなしにやってくる。配達されたものをチェックして、その日の夕食の準備に不足がないか確認する。天ぷら用のなす、ししとう、しいたけ、さつまいも。名物のごま豆腐はお得意先が作りたてをバケツに入れて持ってきてくれる。





「ただのホテルと同じじゃないか…」 正直そう思った。









“フルーツに添えたら、お客さんが喜ぶやろ。”と、 彼女は微笑んだ。






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