Koyasan, the center of Shingon Buddhism


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Asia » Japan » Wakayama » Koyasan
March 7th 2009
Published: August 26th 2009
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Cable car to Koyasan
We woke up early and got ready for our first move. Traveling in a large group can prove difficult if everyone doesn't stick to the plan. We had a great group though and I wasn't too worried. We met in the lobby to check out and make our way to the train station. I loved Axel, our group leader, for one reason...he was as addicted to coffee as I am, so every morning move included a coffee shop stop! My kind of guy!! We dragged our bags to the station and onto a train heading toward the Wakayama prefecture, where we were to catch a cable car up to Koyasan. Mount Koya (Koyasan) is the center of Shingon Buddhism, a Buddhist sect that was introduced to Japan in 805 by Kobo Daishi, one of the most significant personalities in Japan's religious history. Over one hundred temples stand in the small town on top of the wooded mountain, and I was anxious to see a few of them. The cable car up the mountain was a fun experience in itself, but only a quick 5-minute ride, then we caught buses to the Buddhist temple, or Shukubo, that we were to stay in
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Sekishouin, our temple home for the night in Koyasan
for the night. What a phenomenal experience that was!!

We arrived at the temple, Sekishouin, dropped our bags in the entrance, put our shoes in cubbyholes, and were taken to a room where a few monks served us cookies and tea. It was super cold being at the top of a mountain, so the tea was much welcomed. The head monk welcomed us to his temple, gave us some information about dinner time and morning prayers, then came around a placed a bracelet on each of our wrists. Soon thereafter we were off to our rooms, with giant key chains holding our little room keys. Now this temple was beautiful. There were so many intricacies throughout and the rooms were cold, but somehow cozy. Izabela and I popped on our heater and checked the place out. Our room had a foyer, traditional Japanese sliding doors, or shoji screens, a heated table, futons (unlike futons in America, Japanese futons are a certain style of mattress on the floor), and a small screened in balcony looking out on a garden, complete with tea set. After giddily checking out the room, Izabela and I headed out to meet the group for lunch.
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Drinking the tea the monks gave us
Since it was so cold and rainy, the monks offered to drive us in their little mini, mini-van to the restaurant. I'm telling you, they've got the smallest vehicles ever! So after 3 or 4 trips, we all made it there. I had a delicious rice, meat and egg bowl called Oyakodon, along with some more hot tea. I also met one of the cutest little children I have ever seen in my life!! The first of many in Japan.

With our belly's full and some warmth in our bones, we headed back out into the cold to Kongobuji, the central monastery of Koyasan. The temple was constructed in 1593 by Toyotomi Hideyoshi and is famous for its sliding doors, which were painted by members of the Kano school. Before entering the monastery, we had to wash our hands and mouths in a stone sink-like thing to purify our 'dirtiest parts' before entering the holy site. We also had to take our shoes off and put on the provided slippers. This monastery had beautiful zen gardens and intricately painted sliding doors in each of the rooms. I did some meditating, read about the intricate door paintings and their meanings,
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Now that's a really big key chain!
then learned that the floors in monasteries always creek when you walk, to warn of intruders...no wonder ninja's are so stealthy!

After Kongobuji, we split up and wandered off in our own directions. I headed over to Garan, Koyasan's central temple complex, which was originally constructed by Kobo Daishi. It's been enlarged over the centuries and now consists of the Kondo (main hall), Daito (great tower), Saito (western tower), the Miedo (Mie hall) and various other temple and shrine buildings. The Daito and Saito are so called tahoto, a rather rare kind of pagoda which still resembles the Indian stupa more than the more common three and five storied Japanese pagodas. It was a very quiet and peaceful area, with a few people praying and others like me, just walking around admiring the structure of the buildings and taking in the feel of the sacred Buddhist complex.

After a quick stop back by our home temple, Sekishouin, for a couple more layers of warmth, I met up with my fellow American, Erin, and we decided to head to Okunoin Temple. Okunoin is the temple where Kobo Daishi rests in eternal meditation and is considered one of the most
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Awesome table and chairs in Sekishouin
sacred places in Japan. Okunoin is surrounded by Japan's largest graveyard. People from all over Japan, who wished to be buried close to Kobo Daishi, lie there, including former feudal lords, politicians and other prominent personalities. Their graves line the approaches to Okunoin for several hundred meters through the forest. It was a misty, foggy day, which made the graveyard astonishingly beautiful. Many of the grave stones reminded me of the fallen stones at the temples in Cambodia. The trees were towering and the fog set in, while we made our way up the path toward Okunoin, and we began to hear the faint chanting of the monks in the temple. It got louder as we got closer and I've never felt such a calmness wash over my entire being.

By the time we reached Okunoin, the chanting had finished and their was an eerie quietness about the place. Okunoin was completely closed up and I'm not sure if we'd missed it being open or if it's ever open to the public, but we did get to enter the Temple of 1,000 Lights, which was beautiful as well. Erin and I then made our way back through the graveyard
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An example of Sekishouin's many intricacies...this was just one of the doors leading outside. Beautiful, eh?!
and into town, where we decided to go for a beer. We ended up walking way further into town than we'd realized, due to the fog, and after our beer, we made it back to Sekishouin just in time for our all vegan dinner prepared by the monks. We put on the traditional dress of pants, a robe-like top that if wrapped the wrong way meant you were dead, and a shawl-like sweater. We sat on the floor in front of an elaborately displayed meal that turned out to be not so great. It was mostly pickled vegetables and soup. I ate a lot of the rice. Nonetheless, I was full and content after a day of such amazing feelings and sights. All I needed at this point was a burning hot shower, to get the cold off my bones.

I did just that, then went to sleep with what I thought was a mind at peace, but turned out to be just the opposite when I didn't sleep so well. I was having bad dreams of ninja's attacking me in the night. I remember seeing shadows through the sliding doors of ninjas and their crazy long ninja swords
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The heated table that we sat with our legs under for a long time after a cold day in Koyasan.
and being amazed that I didn't hear them coming. I wondered how they got in and if it was because I accidentally stepped on the carpet with my shoes on that I deserved to be killed. I didn't want to die, but I thought it was a cool way to go and before I knew it it was 5:30am and Izabela was shaking me awake. I think I was also worried about waking up on time for morning prayers at 6am. I restlessly got up, happy to be alive, and put my traditional dress back on over warm clothes and headed to the prayer room.

Prayers were amazing! We sat on our knees for 40 minutes while a group of 10-12 monks knelt in a half circle around burning incense and a gong and chanted, hitting the gong every so often. Another monk spoke to us in Japanese the whole time. As well as my whole group, there were also about 10-15 Japanese people there for morning prayers. They listened intently to the monks sermon and the chanting was seamless. I spent the majority of my time with my eyes closed meditating and praying my own prayers and thankfulness
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Futons that we slept on
for such an amazing experience...and trying not to think about breakfast and how hungry I was! At the end of the sermon, everyone took turns going up to any of the many little shrines throughout the prayer room. Each had an abundance of incense burning, and some coals, which we dropped crushed incense onto then put our faces in the rising smoke to cleanse ourselves.

So, relaxed and cleansed and getting viciously hungry, we finally headed to breakfast! I'm pretty sure they took everyone's leftovers from dinner the night before and re-served it to us in the morning. Again, I filled up on rice! Though the food wasn't my best experience, the temple and the town of Koyasan made up for it immensely. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the Buddhist history of the city and feeling it's peacefulness. After breakfast, it was time to make our way back to the bus station, then down the mountain by cable car and back to the train station. Hiroshima, here I come!


Additional photos below
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Delicious lunch!
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Seriously though, could she be more adorable??
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For cleansing our hands and mouths before entering Kongobuji
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Zen Garden at Kongobuji
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Painted sliding doors at Kongobuji
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Painted sliding doors at Kongobuji
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Toto or the Eastern Stupa in Garan
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Sammmaido or the Temple of Meditation in Garan
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Daito or the Great Stupa in Garan
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Prayers in Garan
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Graveyard on the way up to Okunoin Temple
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Forest on the way up to Okunoin Temple
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Temple of 1,000 Lights
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On the way out of the graveyard
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Traditional dress for meals and prayers
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Our all vegan meal at Sekishouin
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Sekishouin Prayer Room
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Having some tea before checking out


29th August 2009

Wow!
Kailie this was beautifully written, you made me want to go to Koyosan. What an experience you had, especially the peace that you felt. There is nothing quite like that feeling!

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