The train wound through a series of tight valleys with mountains soaring on all sides. We past small villages with grey tiled roofs and persimmon trees heavy with red fruit. The leaves on the Japanese maples were a kaleidoscope of changing colors. The pine tress blew in the cold, damp wind. When the train arrived near the top of the mountain, a cable car made the final ascent to Koyasan, a highland valley at 2,700 feet.
Koyasan was established by Kukai, one of Japans most revered religious figures (known after his death as Kobo Daishi.) At the age of thirty-one he went to China during the Tang Dynasty in 804. After two years he mastered the teachings of esoteric Buddhism and returned to Japan to spread Shingon Buddhism throughout the country.
In 816 Emperor Saga granted him the use of the land to establish the monastic complex of Koyasan, with over eight hundred temples, including the head temple Kongobuji. The area became the center of Esoteric Buddhist practice and later a mystic holy site. In 2004 the sacred sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii mountain range were designated as the 12th World Heritage site in Japan.
Of the one hundred and seventeen temples that remained (many destroyed by fires), fifty-two of them of them provided lodging and meals, historically for pilgrims. On my first night I stayed at the Eko-in monastery. A young monk showed me to my basic, but spacious tatami room, with painted screen walls and a kotatsu (a low, wooden table) with an electric heater underneath to keep your legs warm. I put on the simple cotton kimono provided in my room and headed to the communal baths downstairs to warm up. I walked along the cold roof-covered walkways. A wall of windows faced an internal garden. My plastic slippers slapped along the wide plank flooring that squeaked and moved under me. The wind howled through the thin walls. I smiled the smile of a contented traveler on an adventure. These were the moments that made the effort of getting somewhere worth it. After my bath I stayed warm with my down coat and woolies, and put on every layer of clothing I had with me.
Shojin Ryori (Buddhist Vegetarian Cuisine) was served for breakfast and dinner. The Shojin Ryori served in Koyasan originated in China and had been adapted to Japan by monks over the centuries. Entirely vegan, the food was based on the the concepts of five flavors, five cooking methods and five colors. A meal should include a grilled dish, deep fried dish, a pickle dish, a tofu dish, and a soup dish.
Not everyone would, but I found my meals delicious. A monk brought dinner to my room on three stacked red trays placed before me; sliced sweet potato in a citrus sauce, clear soup, squares of some breaded and fried imitation meat that tasted like a chicken cutlet, sliced bamboo shoots with sesame seeds, a shitake mushroom broth with vegetables, Japanese pickles, and cut up fruit for dessert. My favorite item was Goma-Dofu (Sesame tofu) made from roasted and ground white sesame seeds boiled together with tofu and starch from powdered arrowroot. When the monk came and cleared my tray I told him how much I liked the Goma-Dofu. He said most foreigners didn’t like it because of the strange texture.
After dinner I went for a walk in the cold, silent night to the Okunoin cemetery. Over two hundred thousand tombstones and Buddhist memorial pagodas called stupas covered in moss ran along a 1.25 mile winding cobbled path lined with giant ancient Japanese cedars. Over the centuries historical figures, including famous samurai, feudal lords and shoguns, had tombstones erected there in order to be closer to Kobo Daishi. There were also rows and rows of miniature stone Buddha statues wearing knitted red cap and bibs around their necks. The enlightened spirit depicted in these statues was Jizo Bosatsu. Jizo watches over and protects children in the afterlife. The bibs were placed on the statues by families who lost children, with the prayer that Ojizo-san, as Jizo is respectfully called, will watch over them as a surrogate parent and also with the prayer for the long life of their living children.
Along the path I hooked up with three young travelers from Holland, the only other people in the cemetery that night. Two of the women were Hello Kitty fanatics. Hello Kitty is a fictional Japanese cat character that can be seen everywhere. “You can tell what a town is famous for by going into a souvenir shop and seeing what Hello Kitty is doing,” one of the women said. “I have Hello Kitty sitting in a hot tub. I also have Hello Kitty with Mickey Mouse ears from the Disney World in Japan, Hello Kitty swimming with dolphins. Here in Koyasan I bought Hello Kitty sitting cross legged in meditation.”
Across the Gobyobashi Bridge, was Kobo Daishi’s Mausoleum and Torodo Hall, the main temple for worship, with over ten thousand lanterns eternally lit. In the tenth century the belief arose that Kobo Daishi Kukai had not passed away, but had rather entered an eternal meditation at Okunoin cemetery for the liberation of all beings. Any Buddhist worth their salt in Japan has had their remains, or just a lock or two of hair, interred in this cemetery temple to ensure their position when Miroku Buddha, the Buddha of the Future, comes to earth.
“I hope no samurai come to haunt you in the night,” said one of the Dutch women as we parted ways. But that was exactly what happened. Back in my room at the monastery there were no locks on the sliding doors and only a thin paper panel separated me from the hallway. I heard strange sounds. Every time I fell asleep I woke startled thinking there was someone in my room. Finally, I got out of my warm bed to investigate and found the source of the noise; the koi fish jumping in the pond in the garden outside my door. With no samurai or ninja’s in sight I fell into a deep sleep.
The next night I stayed at the Muryoko-in monastery. The town was quiet because of the rain and cold, the weather wild and windy. With a typhoon heading our way I didn’t get to hike the Women Pilgrims route. A small temple in town called Nyonin-da, the Women’s Hall, marked one of the original seven entrances to the sacred precincts, beyond which women weren’t allowed to proceed. The practice continued until 1906 despite an imperial edict against it issued in 1872. In the meantime, female pilgrims worshipped in special temples built beside each gate, of which Nyonin-da was the last remaining. I wanted to walk the trail and pay homage to all the women pilgrims denied entry into the town but the wind pushed me back to my room.
At 6:00 A.M. I joined in the Shingon morning service in a long, cold, cave-like room. During the ninety minute ceremony the chief priest and monks of the temple chanted Buddhist sutras. They also held a fire ritual where wooden sticks were set on fire on the altar in front of the Buddha statue. The dark room glowed with the flames while the Buddha burned away the root of our suffering.
After the service the monk who led the ceremony stopped the last six people from leaving; three Japanese, two French and me, and told us to follow him. He led us to a small room and served us green tea and sweet cakes at a low table with cushions. Kurt Genso, a Swiss monk, one of only a few non-Japanese monk in Koyasan, could switch from English, French and Japanese with no effort (he also spoke Italian and German). Kurt asked us where we were from and answered our questions about the Buddhism. I shifted uncomfortably from sitting cross legged to sitting on my heels. “Oh no, put your legs out in front of you under the table,” Kurt said. “We have to sit like this but it’s not good for you. Be comfortable.”
I was comfortable in Koyasan, a place I’d love to return to. A place where I ate healthy food, soaked in hot baths, meditated, listened to bells ring on windy days, walked in silence in sacred places, napped and dreamed of the Buddha and peace on earth.