[From April Issue 2011]
Wakayama Prefecture’s Koyasan is considered to be one of Japan’s holiest places ever since the Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi (a.k.a Kukai) founded the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism among its towering cedars in the 9th century. In 2004, along with two other nearby locations, Koyasan was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range.”
Nowadays, 117 Shingon monasteries cluster around the mountain’s main temple where 1,000 monks and 3,000 people live, attracting a steady stream of pilgrims. But it’s not just the pious that make the several-hour long trip south of Osaka – many visitors come just to spend a night as a monk would, at one of the 52 monasteries offering lodging called “shukubou.”
The accommodation tend to be rather Spartan, typically no more than a simple tatami mat room with a low table and futon mattress, plus communal washrooms with deep, piping hot baths. The price, which is usually around 10,000 yen per person per night, includes a beautifully presented breakfast and dinner, served in your room.
Strictly vegetarian, you can expect the meals to include numerous small dishes using ingredients such as tofu, yuba, and seasonal vegetables, as well as rice, pickles, miso soup and perhaps some soba noodles.
One particular area specialty (although readily available across Japan) that you will most likely be served at Koyasan is a freeze-dried tofu called koyadofu, which once rehydrated, has a moist, spongy texture perfect for retaining the flavor of the soup or broth it is cooked in. Traditionally, the monks here used to freeze the tofu by leaving it out on the mountain overnight.
Another highlight of a monastic stay is the opportunity to attend morning prayers with the monks. In inner temple rooms that are usually faintly lit, the air thick with incense, you’ll be able to watch close at hand as the monks recite their early morning sutra in an almost hypnotic droning chant, sporadically accompanied by a heavy, driving drum beat.
At some monasteries guests can also attend a morning fire ceremony, where a lone, seated monk burns 108 pieces of wood in a spectacular ceremony representing the 108 defilements to be overcome on the road to enlightenment.
Staying at a monastery is not the only reason to visit Koyasan. The Okuno-in is another sacred part of Koyasan, where more than 200,000 grave stones and monuments sprawl across this heavily wooded area. It has a wonderfully mysterious feel to it as you wander among its tall cedars, mossy stone stupas and small jizou statues dressed in vivid red bibs. At its eastern end, the cemetery gives way to the Hall of Lanterns, richly decorated and lit by 10,000 constantly burning oil lanterns, behind which, almost hidden in a cloud of incense and dense woodland, is the off-limits mausoleum of Kobo Daishi.
It’s also worth paying a visit to the other side of town and Kongobu-ji, the Shingon sect’s main temple, which is home to a famed collection of 16th-century paintings. The 500 yen entry fee includes green tea and a confectionery, taken in one of the temple’s newer halls, but the real highlight is the landscaped rock garden. As one of Japan’s largest, this garden is called “Banryuutei” and the sizable rocks represent two dragons.
Nearby, you’ll also find Koyasan’s sacred inner precinct, the Danjou-garan, a collection of several wooden halls and colorful stupas where Kobo Daishi erected the mountain’s first monastery. Although most of the structures in this sandy compound are modern rebuilds, they do house some impressive antiquities. Inside the vivid orange Konpon Daito (Great Stupa), a towering structure located at the compound’s center, the most impressive of these are the five giant, golden-gilded Buddhas.
From Shin-Osaka shinkansen station take the Midosuji subway line to Namba station and transfer to the Nankai-Koya Line. Services run almost hourly from Namba to Gokurakubashi station, some requiring a change at Hashimoto station, and take between 70 and 100 minutes. The last leg of the trip is a five-minute cable car ride from Gokurakubashi up to Koyasan.
Text: Rob Goss