We left Kyoto behind from Kyoto Station bound for Osaka where we caught another two trains and a cable car to get to Koyasan.
I was really excited for this part of the trip as I wanted more immersion into Zen Buddhist culture about which I know very little, but was eager to learn. (Side note: I’m not religious but do find religion fascinating. Does that make sense?)
Koyasan is a mountain south of Osaka that is the heart of the Shingon (“True Word”) sect of Esoteric Buddhism—the epicentre of study and practice. The mountain was chosen for this purpose 1200 years ago and the monastic life here is still very vibrant with several monasteries and countless young monks.
It also is a pilgrimage site for Buddhists looking to pay respects to Kobo Daishi who founded the Shingon Buddhist sect and established Koyasan as its centre.
Consequently, many of the monasteries offer lodging to pilgrims (and interested but not-so-religious, tourists like myself).
Koyasan might be old but those monks have some pretty good modern marketing skills to attract visitors from around the globe. They even have a mascot (of course they do, it’s Japan!), Koya-kun, who (like every other mascot in Japan) is utterly adorable.
We stayed at Eko-in, a popular monastery among tourists and the place was nearly full the night that we were there. Almost everyone was a foreigner save for a single Japanese family.
Eko-in is run by a great group of young monks and they offer you activities to partake in during your stay. When we arrived we were shown right to our tatami mat room where there was tea ready for us and the heart sutra waiting to be copied.
At 4:30pm the monks teach you Ajikan meditation techniques (meditating on the sanskrit letter ‘a’) and leave you to a 40 minute silent meditation.
A Shojin Ryori dinner is ready for you in your room at 5:30pm. Shojin Ryori is the sort of meal you would expect from monks: a simple vegan meal with a variety of small portions or, as described by our travel guide “lacking meat and any exciting vegetables like garlic or onion”. Yeah. The food was thoughtfully prepared, though not as exciting as the meals we had in the Kiso Valley and not as filling.
After dinner, you can opt to go on an guided night tour (in English) of Okunoin Cemetery. We opted instead to do that earlier in the day on our own.
This was one of the coolest things that we saw in Japan. I’m a sucker for cemeteries (is that weird?) so I might be partial, but I’d put Okunoin as a ‘must see’ in Japan.
Okunoin is 1200 years old and the largest graveyard in Japan with over 200,000 graves.
The reason for the size is because Kobo Daishi (that guy I mentioned in the beginning who founded Shingon Buddhism and Koyasan) is believed to be resting in eternal meditation in a mausoleum in the cemetery.
Everyone wants to buried near Kobo Daishi. This is some seriously holy ground.
The cemetery has gorgeous and opulent headstones that span the centuries and is surrounded by huge Japanese cedars that span the centuries as well.
We couldn’t take photos of Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum but it is lit by literally thousands of lanterns which is striking. The silence and reverence of the pilgrims and monks that visit to pray and pay respects is part of what makes the space feel holy and serene.
Morning ceremonies back at the Eko-in monastery begin at 6:30am in the temple.
There might have been a wake-up call but we certainly missed it. I woke naturally in a at 6:25am realizing that it must be almost time to get up and was frenzied when I looked at my watch. Luckily, neither Matt nor I is unaccustomed to oversleeping so we were able to get to the temple on time.
The ceremony itself involved the monks chanting some sutras. It was cool to hear at first but after 5 minutes became about as exciting you can imagine as any religious service in a foreign language would be (not very).
The ceremony was followed up by the Goma fire ritual which was pretty cool. You watch as a monk builds and consecrates a fire for spiritual and psychological cleansing while another monk is drumming and chanting.
The whole thing is very primitive and mesmerizing.
We had some terrible rain that morning which made us limit our site seeing of the rest of Koyasan and we left earlier than expected to Osaka where we stayed for the night before our flight back to Canada.
Osaka didn’t wow me. It was a busy big city with nothing too spectacular to see or do besides eat, drink, and shop (all of which we were tired of doing). We wandered a bit through Americamura (their America Town) and along Dotombori but mostly found ourselves bored and looking forward to the fancy room upgrade we were offered at the hotel.
Oh, but I should mention that in Osaka there was this:
Pablo Cheesecake- It’s like cheesecake, but creamier and less tangy, and in a tart shell. A tart shell, you guys!
Matt and I bought a whole cheesecake thinking “what are we going to do with the leftovers”. We didn’t have any.
Stay tuned for the next post in my Japan series: Shrines and Temples.