By Lisa on Jul 06, 2013 with Comments 2
Koyasan has to be one of the most intriguing places in the world. Do you know where it is? Let me give you a clue: the other day I mentioned my dislike of cable cars and how I always seem to have to ride in them on my travels. I told you that until last weekend, I had managed to avoid cable cars since five years ago when I was in Japan…
That’s right, now you remember; I told you that Koyasan is a mountain in Japan near Kyoto, where the monks allow visitors to stay with them overnight at the monastery and explore the shrines in the complex.
Yesterday when I was telling you about my visit to Tibidabo during my quick trip to Barcelona last weekend, I was reminded about how scary the cable car was in Koyasan.
Step into my shoes…. we are going back to my backpacking trip in Japan and, more specifically, my visit to the sacred and unique Koyasan Mountain…
During our month long backpacking trip around Japan, Toni and I had already visited Kyoto for five days and we had made a one-night stop at Nara before we were scheduled to go to Koyasan.
We had to leave Nara very early as our train to Koyasan was at 0750.
We didn’t really have time to have breakfast but when we got downstairs, Mr Nakata, the owner of the guesthouse, had prepared us half a grapefruit each, some grapes and some biscuits. I made coffee from the self-service facilities and while we ate, Mr Nakata checked the weather forecast in Koyasan for us – rain.
Then we had to practically run to the train station where we caught our train with no problems.
Getting to Koyasan
We went by train from Nara to Shinimamiya Station, where we bought a package ticket with Nankai for the return train to Koyasan, the bus in Koyasan and the dreaded cable car, as well as a discount vouchers for attractions in Koyasan.
The transport was very well organised: we got off one train, onto another train, up the mountain in the cable car and then straight off the cable car and onto a bus that took us almost to the door of the temple.
We saw great mountain and valley scenery on all the different modes of transport and we were already dropping our bags off before 12 noon. Check in was not until 3pm so we dropped our bags off and went to explore Koyasan.
Unfortunately the weather forecast was right and although the rain was light at first, it spent most of the afternoon bucketing.
We walked up the road just at the right time as they were striking 12 o’clock on the Rokuji-no-kane, or six o’clock bell. Every hour between 6am and 10pm a monk comes out to ring the bell.
We continued past the Kongōbu-ji, the main temple for Shingon Buddhism and headed for the Garan, a cluster of temples that form Koyasan’s sacred precinct and where Kōboō Daishi (aka Kūkai, the monk who founded the first monastery on Koyasan in the early ninth century) built his original monastery.
We continued all the way to the edge of the town to see the Daimon Gate, a two storey gate that marks the traditional entrance to Koyasan. And then we turned back and walked right the way through the town to the other end to see the vast cemetery of Okunoin where over 200,000 gravestones and monuments stand in a forest of Japanese cedar trees. This is considered the most sacred place in Koyasan.
It took about 30 minutes to walk from one end of the cemetery to the other, through the forest of massive old cedar trees and tombs and monuments. Many of the tombs were old, made of weathered stone, but there were many newer ones; some which must have cost a fortune, made of tons of marble, and some that looked like mini palaces.
There were a few rather odd statues as well, like the Nissan one of two men who looked like mechanics, and another of a space rocket!
We looked for the ant statue mentioned in Toni’s guide book, which was erected by a pesticide company in honour of all the bugs they are killing and to try to pardon their sins, but we couldn’t find it.
At the end of the cemetery we found the hall of lanterns, where ten thousand oil lanterns donated by the faithful, are kept constantly lit. Two of them are said to have been burning since the 11th century – one donated by an emperor and the other by a poor anonymous woman.
We walked back past the mausoleum where Kōboō Daishi is said to have been meditating for 1000 years, back the way we had come and into town.
Staying at a Temple in Koyasan
We went to check in at the temple. Our bags were where we’d left them. Our shoes had to stay outside. A monk gave us slippers and showed us to our room.
As we walked along the creaky wooden floors he pointed out a few things to us: the shower was miles away down a corridor; the toilets were communal and had urinals as well as Western style and Japanese style toilets. Then we came to the washroom – this was a big trough of water with ladles in, like what we had seen outside the temples.
Our room was fairly large, separated from rooms on either side only by sliding screen doors and with a low wooden table in the centre with a heater underneath for the feet.
The monk brought us green tea and a sweet with a bean filling and yukatas (informal Japanese robes) with no belt to tie them!
Dinner was brought to us in our room at 6pm. There were eleven dishes altogether: red kidney beans, sesame tofu, excellent veg tempura, soup, some sort of green beans with sesame seeds, shredded veg in vinegar, rice and some raw veg that I couldn’t even guess what it was, and melon for dessert, all of which was served with tea which we were supposed to drink from our rice bowl when we had finished our rice! It all came on five mini tables that stacked up like a tower – like a five storey pagoda, Toni said.
After dinner two monks came to prepare our bed. We were chatting with them and one monk said his wife (wife???) had been to Barcelona.
Toni showed them some photos of Lluc on his computer and explained that Lluc is a spiritual centre, just like Koyasan.
Toni went for a walk later to see how the Garan looked with the lights on. I didn’t go; I didn’t feel like going out again after getting so wet earlier.
We were in bed by 10pm.
Morning Prayers in Koyasan
We were up again at 5.45am to go to the sanctuary within the temple for the ceremony at 6am.
The sanctuary was very richly decorated and looked like a cavern of treasures in the gloomy light of the dull lamps and candlelight.
There was an observation area for spectators, which was a row of stools along the back wall.
In one area knelt a group of monks – one who struck a gong now and then and lightly crashed together a pair of cymbals – and the others chanted lightly in a sing-song tone for an hour and a half. During this time, another monk was throwing a dust-like powder onto a fire he had lit, making it crackle.
At one point a female assistant came and got the spectators and took us first of all to the fire, where we had to place a small pot on a stand and then bow, and then to where the chanters were, and we took turns throwing some dust into a pot. I was first in both cases and it wasn’t always clear what we were supposed to be doing.
Throughout the whole ceremony the chanting monks remained in a kneeling position, and only once or twice did the odd one shift into a cross-legged position for a while before resuming the kneeling position again.
At the end of the ceremony, the monk who seemed to be in charge came and sat with us and gave us a chat about the ceremony we had just witnessed and then he talked about Buddhism in general.
He was very informative without being condescending in any way. He was also knowledgeable about other cultures and spoke excellent English. He told us that Buddha is not a god, but is in fact oneself and he told us that Buddhism is not a religion as such, but rather a state of mind and peace.
He then invited the visitors (there were six of us in total, including a pilgrim who had walked the route of the 88 temples in Shikoku and had then come to Koyasan) to another room where we had extremely bitter green tea and sweets with him and some other monks, and had a chat and a laugh together. It was all very nice, if a bit weird.
Toni and I thought that that was breakfast, but when we got back to our room there were two mini tables on the floor for us with some weird and wonderful things waiting to be eaten.
There was rice – of course, soup – of course, and tea – of course. There was some DIY sushi, there was what can only be described as bean marmelade, some odd soggy tofu thing that we didn’t even touch, and various other edibles that us westerners don’t really consider appropriate for breakfast.
We left after breakfast without showering or washing (in fact, I didn’t even brush my teeth until we got to a train station) because we didn’t want to use those horrible bathrooms!
We took the bus from just near the temple, took the cable car 5 minutes down the steep mountain, and then we jumped straight on the train to Hashimoto.
And that was that. A very brief but enlightening visit to Koyasan.
Read more about my backpacking trip in Japan by clicking here.
About the Author: Lisa, born and grew up in England, live in Mallorca, Spain... Have visited more than 20 countries, have twice as many to yet visit, love sharing experiences....