Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Koyasan; the sacred mountain & staying with monks in a temple

Wow its amazing how much you can pack into a 3 day weekend! With 4 months left in Japan there's still so much I want to do here, eeek. So this weekend we decided to go for a "cram Japan" weekend starting at Koyasan (or Mount Koya), a sacred mountain and Shingon Buddhist temple complex and spending a night in temple lodging (known as shukubo), then hitting Osaka for a night in a capsule hotel and if that wasn't enough go see a sumo match! Soooo much to write about, I'll start with Koyasan.

So on Saturday morning at 6.50am we took the gruelling but cheap 5 hour bus bound for Osaka from Kanazawa (its the old age, I used to be able to handle long bus trips!) In fact it ended up being 7 hours as the traffic was so bad going into Osaka. From Osaka we caught the train and thought it was odd that the scenerey wasn't getting any more mountainous and pretty. It took us over an hour to realise that in fact we were en route to Kansai aiport, DOH! Mild panic setting in as the temple was serving dinner at 5.30pm and they wouldn't wait for anyone, it was now 4pm....

About 4 more train changes, a ropeway tram (see above) and a final bus we ended up in Koyasan, 11 1/2 hours later. Yep, we could have flown to London in that time!

The minute the bus entered the towering entrance gates and this huge stone Buddha appeared from nowhere in the trees we knew it was going to be worth the effort. Just some quick history for you about Koyasan, in 806 a monk named Kukai had travelled to China to study Buddhism. Some years later he returned and established a Shingon monastery on Koyasan, which then grew over the centuries. Kukai has become one of Japan's most famous religious figures and is revered as a Bodhisaattva, scholar and inventor of the Japanese kana.

Nowadays, the Shingon school of Buddhism has 10 million members and presides over nearly 4000 temples all over Japan. Today Koyasan enables tourists to stay alongside monks, eat their characteristic vegetarian cuisine (shojin-ryori), observe their prayer ceremonies and learn meditation techniques. We were to do all but the last.

Reception room at Shojosh-in temple, our home for a night

The temple we stayed at, called Shojoshin-in, blew our away. No reception desk, just a monk who comes and greets you and leads you to a beautiful tatami mat room (above) to check you in.

The main hall at Shojosh-in, where we stayed.

They gave Raquel our list of "rules", meal times, morning prayers time 6.30 and bath times (only between certain times in the evening and not available in the morning).

With no time to settle we went straight down for dinner (luckily they had agreed to still serve us despite being late) The food was so tasty. I honestly thought that we might go hungry what with the monks eating simple diet but no, we had 3 trays of food each! The monk who had been manning reception was now our waiter and was scurrying in and out with the food and hot green tea.

For the next hour we gorged on tempura veggies, pickles, fried tofu, daikon radish, rice, rolled omlette, ginger soup, miso, pickled chinese cabbage, fruit, it went on and on.... see above.
After dinner we drank a few glasses of wine in our room under the kotatsu (heated blanket surrounding a table) had a good ol chin wag and eventually passed out wondering what was in store for the next morning's service.

6.15am on the dot, a loud bell was rung a few times indicidating it was time to get up. We headed down to the prayer room a bit dreary eyed. Well, what an enchanting experience. Listening to the monks chant rythmically almost puts you into a trance like state and certainly took me back to my zazen experience in November.

After morning prayer which finished by 7am we had a huge breakfast and headed out to see Oku-No-In, a cemetary where Kukai rests in eternal meditation and the most sacred site at Koysan. Anyone who is anyone in Japan is buried here including former feudal lords, politicians and soldiers who served in WW2 are all buried in this huge cemetary (200,000 graves to be exact).

I'm no fan of graveyards here but there isn't a creepy tombstone in sight, just a quaint path that leads you through the cedar forest over quaint bridges, past monuments and towards Toro-Do (Lantern Hall) and Kukai's mausoleum.

En route we passed so many people cladded in white jackets and holding walking sticks. I initially thought they were tour guides (big faux pas jessie!) They were in fact "spiritual tourists" starting or ending their pilgrimages to the "88 sacred places of Shikoku", an impressive 1,100km trail.

I could go on about Koya and the wonderful places including Kongobu-ji and Garan (the temple complex), the golden pagodas but I'm running out of time and have a few more posts to write! Have a browse of the pics and you'll get a sense for the wonder of the place.

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