September 11, 2014
When we first planned our trip to Kyoto I messaged a friend of mine who had lived and taught in Japan for a year. She gave me several recommendations for Kyoto but also advised that if we had the time a temple stay in Mount Koya would be worth our while. She said, “It was one of the best/favorite trips I went on in Japan…”
That settled it in my mind and I began looking for a temple-stay in Koyasan. I found a website (http://www.japaneseguesthouses.com) and booked a one night stay at Shojoshin-in.
One of the conditions of our stay was that we arrive before 5pm or our reservation would be cancelled and the full bill charged to my card. So we left Kyoto with what I imagined would be plenty of time – 4 hours. We needed to first get to Osaka, then take a rail line to Gokurakubashi, and then take a cable car to Koyasan. It would be another 20 minutes before we made it to our temple by bus.
We got on the wrong train to Osaka (wrong but not detrimental) so I was stressed from the start. The best way to cure travel stress is to grab a tall boy of cheap beer. At the station in Osaka we grabbed a couple of Kirin tall boys and some sushi and then hopped on our train to Gokurakubashi (with a train change in Hashimoto). Eating sushi and washing it down with a Kirin is a pretty darn nice way to ride a train even if the lady across from you probably thinks you are white heathens.
Anyway, we actually barely made it to our temple. We walked into the gates at 4:45pm. Phew.
Dinner was at 5:30pm so we settled into our room for a bit and then went down to the dining area. Dinner was interesting. It was shojin-ryori – Buddhist monk vegetarian – and it was very elaborate. (I didn’t take my camera downstairs and I should have. These camera phone photos will have to do.) I can’t quite recall everything and there were some things we didn’t even recognize. There were some incredibly delicious beans and several things that had been tempura-fried, two soups, fruit, some gelatin things, pickled carrots and radishes, rice, etc.
After dinner we retired to our room and just enjoyed not having an evening agenda. We were more exhausted than we realized and really needed the rest.
Another condition of our stay was that we attend the morning prayers held at 6:30am. A gong rang about 10 minutes before the prayers started and we went downstairs. We were pleasantly greeted by one of the monks and ushered into the main hall. We were seated on a long bench at the back. I did not take any photos as I felt it would have been disrespectful, but here is a photo from the the webpage where I reserved our room:
The room itself was long and deep. It was dark at the rear and you could occasionally see the smoke billowing up from a stick of incense. We were seated against the back wall of shōji (wood frames covered in translucent paper) which let in a nice amount of early morning sunlight. The room was draped in the rich tapestries you can see in the photo and there were a lot of gilded objects. There were only two monks and one was blocked from our view. However, we were able to see the head monk as he led the morning prayers. It was quite mesmerizing. If there had been a back to the bench we were seated on I would have eventually dozed off. It was all very measured. The chants were rhythmic and harmonious, and the head monk’s movements were deliberate yet delicate. He did everything with a precise grace.
The prayers lasted about 40 minutes and then we were released for breakfast. Breakfast was similar to dinner, just smaller.
I’ll be honest. My stomach is much more sensitive in the morning and I really did a terrible job of trying a lot of the breakfast items. We had some beans, greens with sesame seeds, a miso soup, some sort of strange tofu cake-thing, and rice with seaweed. I’m more of a toast and jam kinda gal.
Anyhow, after breakfast, we decided to explore a little of the town. Our temple was next to the cemetery path that leads to Okunoin, regarded as Koyasan’s most sacred site and one of the most sacred sites in Japan. Okunoin is where the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi is located. Kobo Daishi (or Kukai) was the founder of Shingon Buddhism. He is not believed to be dead but in an eternal meditation (since 835) while he awaits the Buddha of the Future, Miroku Nyorai.
The path to the mausoleum begins at Ichi-no-hashi, or the first bridge. Surrounding the 2km path is Japan’s largest cemetery with over 200,000 gravestones. Many people have been buried here in order to be close to Kobo Daishi in death and hopefully receive salvation. The walk through the cemetery is magnificent and serene. Since we went early in the morning we were often alone in its vast beauty.
The Gobyo-no-hashi Bridge separates the cemetery from the sacred ground of the mausoleum. (Photography is forbidden once you cross the bridge.) From the bridge you can see Torodo Hall at the end of a short path. Torodo Hall, or Hall of Lamps, is the main hall for worship. There are over 10,000 lanterns in the hall which have been donated by worshipers and are kept eternally lit. There are two lamps at the back of the hall that have been lit for over 1,000 years. Behind the hall is Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum, Gobyo.
After our walk we collected our bags from the temple and walked around the town before catching the bus to begin our journey back to Osaka.
We had a really pleasant ride back into Osaka. On one of our trains there were 4 Japanese women seated in front of us. One of them got up and asked us where we were from and told us she was from New Zealand – a Japanese Kiwi. She gave us each a piece of sushi – how sweet!
Then it was off to the airport and back to Korea where Truman was only slightly happy to see us. At least until I showed him his gift from Kyoto:
We had a really wonderful time but unfortunately had to jump back into work immediately. Hopefully we can try to practice some of the peace we found in Koyasan.