I first visited Koyasan (Mt. Koya) with my husband at least 20 years ago, and fell in love with it, so I dearly wanted to show it off to the Intrepid Traveler.
She kindly agreed – so I booked us a Monastery stay for 2 nights and off we went.
The trip from Tokyo to Koyasan is not an easy one – there are subways to take, trains to catch, more subways to use, more trains to catch, and finally a funicular, a bus, and a walk. But in this case, the destination is worth the travel headaches to get there.
Koyasan was established as a place of Buddhist teaching and worship back in 816. Yes – well over 1200 years ago. And it’s been going strong ever since. Everyone in Japan wants to be buried there – and if they can’t – to at least have a monument erected in their honour. It is a place of pilgrimage and for many – a place of power. Certainly it is difficult to describe how unique the feeling of being in Koyasan is – even to the totally uninitiated
Our Monastery – the Yochi-in – was probably the least expensive place to stay in Koyasan – mostly because there were no private toilets. All the washing and bathing areas are still shared, and this keeps the prices low. But that said, we absolutely loved it. The facility is huge, and only a small part of it is devoted to paying guests. We dined on special vegetarian meals in a communal dining area, and prayed together every morning at 6:30. There were sutra copying exercises on offer, and you could pay a bit more and have all the facilities of a proper ryokan – in-room massages, wine or saki with dinner, etc. Being budget travellers – we took the simplest options – but they were wonderful.
Our room was huge, and lovely – yes our beds were futons on the floor, but we had a private balcony with western chairs and a small table overlooking a lovely garden. Quite a change from our lodging in Tokyo. And we loved meeting all the other guests at dinner and breakfast. There were folks from Italy, Holland, Australia, Spain, and France, along with Japanese pilgrims as well.
We had all come for the same reasons – to walk the absolutely stunning graveyard, to pay our respects at the Temple where the founder of Koyasan, the Buddhist Monk Kodo Dashi, is lying in eternal meditation, and to feel the power of what is a completely marvellous place.
In addition to the main highlights, the Intrepid Traveler and I found time to tour the World Headquarters of Shingon Buddhism. This is home to the largest Rock Garden in Japan, and a set of sliding doors used to separate the various rooms from each other that were painted by a master in and around 1000 years ago. They are stunning – and worth contemplating for hours – which of course is what they were designed for.
One of our highlights however was a very small temple off the Main Street that told the story of a man and his son who spent 40 years as monks in this very temple, without the father ever letting the son know of their relationship. He did this to demonstrate his belief in Buddhism – in the denial of self. The story – one of infidelity and the results of that action – was told in a series of wood carvings. Our favourite was the one that shows the wife and the mistress playing an innocent board game while their long black hair has become fighting snakes. Naturally the husband is looking on – and decides it would be best for all if he left to become a Monk.
Eventually, his son by the mistress comes looking for him, but at that point, he’s been a Buddhist for so long, he refuses to identify with his former self, and tells the child that his father had died. When the son returns to Koyasan having discovered his mother has also died and he is now an orphan, it’s too late to undo the white lie, and thus father and son spend 40 years together, without the son ever knowing that his mentor is his actual father.
I know – weird story. But very Japanese I think. And the wood carvings were magnificent.
We loved this visit to Koyasan as much as I loved my last visit – and I will try to return once more. It is a very special kind of place.
Signing off on their way to Kyoto – and a much less relaxed pace – the Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.