Sunday, August 10, 2008
Our next adventure took us to Osaka, where we were completely confused by a new subway and rail system. We finally found the right line, which provided a two-hour train ride (both express and local) to the base of Mount Koya, or Koyasan as the Japanese call it. From there, we took a cable car unlike any other I'd seen up the side of the mountain, hopped in a bus and landed about 20 minutes later at our bus stop. It was breathtaking – gigantic hydrangeas and butterfly bushes lined our way, with bright bursts of lilies and the occasional glimpse of a water fall.
The mountain boasts more than 115 Shingon Buddhist temples in the village of Koya (5,000 people, 1,000 of which are monks), which was founded by Kobo Daishi (Kukai) about 1,200 years ago, who is said to still rest there in meditation.
Upon reaching our bus stop, we were immersed in a small village unlike anything else we had experienced in Japan thus far. We chose to stay at the Shojoshin-in Temple, a beautiful and ancient place. It was easy to find our host temple for the night, which was conveniently located at the entrance of Okunoin, a pathway that leads to the great Kobo Daishi’s shrine.
To be honest, we hadn’t a clue what to do upon arrival at the temple. We blustered around in search of the correct entrance, then figured out where our shoes went (no shoes in the temple). Thankfully we ran into some English-speaking guests who called an assistant to check us in.
We were almost an hour past dinner time (our train got stopped due to either a thunderstorm, accident or combination of the two – we had no idea what the explanation was as it was given in Japanese), but we still were able to receive our traditional vegetarian meal. Neither of us know most of the components of it, but it did contain beans, vegetable tempura, pickled vegetables, tofu, soup, watermelon and lots of seaweed/kelp type things. Some was very, very good. Others I am happy to have experienced but will never try again.
After dinner, we headed out to Okunoin, as we had read that it was something that must be seen at night as well as during the day. It was an incredible experience. The recent downpour had left the tombstones and monuments glistening, and the fresh air was tinged with incense and cedar. The shear number of carved stones was incredible... around 200,000 line the 1.6 km walk to the temple and shrine. We couldn’t see beyond the first few headstones, but knew that the depth of them must be incredible. I felt at peace and in awe to be walking down the very same path where emperors, samaurai and feudal lords had walked hundreds of years before. The path was lined with stone lanterns to lead the way, with trees leaning over the pathway, frogs creaking over head and gentle breezes tickling the back of your neck.
After our evening stroll, we headed back to our room, which opened onto a beautiful little Japanese garden. Our room was traditionally Japanese, complete with tatami mats, fusuma (sliding, paper lined doors) and communal bathing areas. We slept on futons on the floor, with the fusuma open onto a hillside Japanese garden, bringing in a nice breeze. I slept more soundly than I had the entire time here in Japan, lulled to sleep by the creaking boards, sweet incense and sounds of the wind outside. It's hard to describe the inner peace I felt that night - not just relief from the weariness of travel and modern life, but from some very personal and deep part inside me. In this foreign place so very different from my usual surroundings, my religious experiences or anything else I hold as my personal norms, it was strange to feel an undeniable sense of belonging.
In the morning I was woken by a bell calling us to prayers at 5:50 a.m. (Jason hadn't found the same inner peace, and had barely slept all night!) We splashed cold water on our faces and stumbled down with the rest of the tourists and henro (pilgrims) to watch the morning prayers, complete with chanting monks, strange rituals I did not understand, banging of cymbals and the ringing of a bell. Candles and incense burned, and the air around us shimmered with the light reflecting from the gold adornments, shiny black furnishings and elaborately woven rugs. It was magical, and I found myself lost in meditation, despite the language barrier and my lack of understanding. I was all too disappointed when it ended after what seemed like such a short time, but my feet were grateful – they were close to falling asleep. Sitting on the floor on tatami in the proper manner takes practice and flexibility, neither of which I’ve had. Time to take up yoga again when I get home.
We next were led to breakfast, which once again was served kaiseki style. We had seaweed, more tofu, more beans, more green stuff I couldn’t place. The tea was different than the previous night's green tea – I think Oolong? Again, I’m clueless as to what it was.
With the rhythms of the monks' chanting still ringing in my head, we headed out once again to walk to path in Okunoin. Sunlight streamed through the trees, and it was breathtakingly, achingly beautiful. The kind of beauty that you know you will experience only a few times in your life. The kind that makes tears spring to your eyes. I felt such peace and happiness in just being present and being there. It was incredible how much we could not see during the night that was visible the next morning. The path was much more populated, and I enjoyed watching the rituals at the various shrines, as well as the temple. Henro from across the country were there, easily identifiable by their white smocks and (sometimes) bamboo hats. We walked around Kobo Daishi's shrine, but were quickly shooed out of a side area – I guess we weren’t supposed to be there. Luckily we’re Americans, which equals barbarians to the Japanese, so I think we will be forgiven by the ancestors and those present in flesh as well!
I could not resist the temptation any longer to reach out and touch the mammoth trees, many of them hundreds of years old. The textures of the rough, flaking bark contrasted with the spongy, incredibly soft moss are now imprinted on my soul, along with the sights, sounds and smells of this incredible place.
This was one of those experiences I know I will carry in my heart until the day I die. It was all at once mystical, peaceful, magical, inspiring and awesome. If you ever get the chance to go to Koyasan, DO IT! No matter what your religious background, there is something that will undeniably move your spirit in ways you have not felt before. It is incredible.