Koyasan #2: Morning Meditation and Exploring the Town


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Asia » Japan » Wakayama » Koyasan
September 27th 2015
Published: November 1st 2015
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Muryokoin Temple, Koyasan
We got up around 5:40-5:45 am. I had slept really well. The temple is quite noisy, as the building is old, and the floors are pretty creaky when people are walking about. I had woken a couple of times during the night, once around 11:30 pm and then again at 2 am. There's nothing nicer than waking up, looking at the clock and then realising that you still have hours left in bed. The room was a little cool and I quickly put on my clothes and we headed towards the meditation room, stopping off at the toilet on the way. Some people were brushing their teeth and washing their faces, far too much effort for so early in the morning. There was a monk at the entrance to the mediation room and she had a pot with incense powder in it. We each took a pinch of the powder and rubbed it into our hands. It smelt so good!

We walked along the corridor and enter the main room. The monks were all in front of us, sitting on the floor. There were stools set out for us to sit on and watch/join in with the mediation. All of
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Muryokoin Temple, Koyasan
the monks were sitting in the middle, one monk (I don't know if he was the main monk, or a high up) was leading the chanting and the other monks were sitting either side of him. To the left, there was one monk sitting alone with a big pot of fire. This is Goma, fire ritual, which is one of the most recognisable aspects of Shingon Buddhism. The purpose of the ritual is to destroy negative energies, detrimental thoughts and desires, and for making secular requests and blessings. I enjoyed the mediation sessions. Although my back was aching by the end of it from sitting on the stool. I had noticed that there were some benches along the wall and some people had retreated to sit there.

At one point we got up and were lead to the area where the monks were sitting. We walked past the monk performing Goma, it was so interesting getting up close to be able to see what was going on. We stopped at two points to pray to Buddha and at one of these stops we gave Buddha an offering of what I think was tea. Then it was back to our seats as the monks carried on chanting. I think it would be great to be a monk and have all that inner peace, but I don't think I could do it, I just don't have the dedication that they do. the meditation wasn't all serious though. There was a family sitting behind me, who had a young daughter. At one point, she reached over and grabbed my bum, I really wanted to laugh, but couldn't. I think she must have been sitting on her mam or dad's lap, as they got up and moved to a stool, which had no one sitting in front of it. Also, my friend nudged me at one point during the session and indicated that I should look at the monks to the right. One of the monks obviously found the meditation a bit too peaceful, as he had fallen asleep. He looked so young, even younger than the monk, who had showed us to our room yesterday.

The meditation session lasted about 45 minutes to an hour. Two of the monks came out and sat on the carpet with us for a chat. These were two of the older monks, and one of them had lead the service that morning. One of the monks looked Japanese (he was) and the other was a western gentleman. It was the western guy that had lead the morning prayers. They spoke for a few minutes, but I can't really remember what it was about. We headed back towards our rooms, but one of the monks stooped us and lead us in the opposite direction, along the outdoor walkway next to the garden and into a smaller room. There was us, another lady who was doing the 88 temple pilgrimage, the couple with the baby, some monks and people who help out at the temple. I was so glad we got invited to join them. The main monk (the Swiss gentlemen) poured us some green tea and gave us a red bean biscuit. They chatted mainly in Japanese, but my friend and the Swiss monk interpreted for me. What am international group the monks were. The Swiss monk had spent time in Laos and was (I think) trying to set up a school there, the older Japanese monk had been to China to study Buddhism there, and the younger Japanese monk had lived in Bangkok for 2 or 3 years to study an ancient form of Buddism, which used an ancient tongue. It was really interesting to listen to them.

We headed back to our room for breakfast. I was starving, well we'd had an early dinner last night and been up since about 5:45 am, it was now about 7:30 am. You know you've lived in Asia for too long, when you comment, ooh I hope we get soup for breakfast. I was so happy to see a bowl of miso soup in front of me. It was accompanied by rice and a few small veggie side dishes. The breakfast was really tasty and I enjoyed it. After getting all of our stuff sorted we headed back along to near where the monk's room was, so that we could get some photos of the pretty garden. It had been raining earlier and now it was really misty. I thought it made the place look great, really mysterious. We headed to the office to settle up for our stay. The temple stay was quite expensive, around 9,000 yen for dinner, bed and breakfast, but it was a unique experience and one I really enjoyed. It was really different to the temple stays that I have done in Korea.

We headed to the bus stop down on the main road and we were going to visit Kobo Daishi Gobyo. We got off the bus a couple of stops earlier so that we could walk through Okunoin. Okunoin is a cemetery, which extends for two kilometres from Ichinohashi bridge to Kobo Daishi's mausoleum. We had a lovely stroll through the cemetery. I found it really interesting. There are so many graves, a lot were really, really old. They had succumbed to the elements and were covered in moss. also the cedar trees were huge, it was impossible to capture them without using panorama! Some of the more important graves had signs telling the public, who they belonged to and why they were important. There were also a lot of Ojizo-san, which I love photographing, even though they are tinged with the sadness of others. These small Buddhist statues wear bibs, normally red, and are representative of the Jizo Bosatsu bodhisattva. It is believed that Jizo watches over and protects children in the afterlife. Parents, who have lost children, place bibs on the statues with a prayer that Jizo will watch over their children as a surrogate parent. On a lighter note, there was a Buddha statue that was covered in make up, a really funny sight. The plaque next to it said that if you applied some make up to it, then your make up applying skills would improve. I definitely had to give that a whirl.

We reached the end of the cemetery and came to Kobo Daishi Gobyo. You have to be very respectful to enter this area and it is forbidden to take any photos. With our cameras tucked away, we crossed over the small bridge over the stream. I asked my friend if the stream signifies the different between the two worlds, that of the living and the dead, like the royal tombs in Korea, but she didn't know if that was the case. Kobo Daishi was the founder of Shingon Buddhism. He is one of the most revered religious figures in the Japan. I wish I was better with words, but I just can't describe the main room and how it felt properly, I think it's a place you have to visit to really feel the atmosphere and take in what you can see. We had rubbed our hands with incense before entering. The smell just adds to the atmosphere. It was pretty dark inside and there were lots of monks praying. The area was lit with candles and there were lots of lanterns hanging from the ceiling. There was also a lot of praying going on. I couldn't understand what was being said, but it was to do with the tsunami a few years ago. We watched some member of the public join the monks praying, they were all dressed very formally, all in black. My friend said that it was expensive to go and prayer there, but I can't remember the cost.

We left the main hall and went downstairs, that place was really crowded and I didn't really understand why, I think it was Kobo Daishi's resting place. We then headed across to Torodo, which is the lantern hall. The hall contains around 10,000 lamps. We headed back to the 'non-sacred' area. There was a line of different Buddha statues and peopel were pouring water over them. I decided I wanted to too. These are Mizumuke Jizo (water covered Jizo)and throwing water over them and making offerings is to pray for departed family members. There was a large tea room, which had big pots of hot water. We helped ourselves to some tea and went through to the common room for a five minute sit-down. We headed out of the cemetery a different way to the way we came in. This section had a lot of newer graves.

We took the bus to the opposite end of town (gotta make use of those free bus passes) to see Daimon, which is the main gate of Koyasan. If we had entered by car or on foot we would have come past this, the main gate. The present gate was built in 1705 and is 25 metres high, I wish we had been able to enter into the gate and climb to the top of it. the gate was very imposing, I wish I could travel back in time and see what it had been like and watch the people coming and going. Across the road from the gate, there is the start/end point of a hiking trail. I really wish I could have dine that too, although there were signs saying to watch out for bears and
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Koyasan
not to hike alone. We had also read in the guide book that you could see an island and the ocean in the distance, however we couldn't see a thing as there weer a lot of trees in the way, maybe if we were on higher ground.

We walked back into to town. We passed a family mart on the way, family mart only recently opened in the town, I think a couple of years ago. We were feeling hungry, so we headed in and bought loads of stuff. I love family mart as it is cheap and this lets me spend money buying all kinds of things to try. If I don't like it, I would have only wasted a couple of hundred yen. We took our food and went and sat on the picnic benches on front of the store. It was nice to sit outside and have a bit of a picnic. I had bought my favourite rice ball, I can never fully remember what it looks like and I can't read the Japanese descriptions, so I always pick the one that looks the most delicious. I really love the fish roe with mayo rice ball,
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it has a little spicy kick to it. I also tried some cheese sticks wrapped in processed fish, it tastes better than it sounds, and some dried squid, the dried squid had a really strong taste of vinegar.

We headed to Danjo Garan to look around, we entered by Kondo (Golden Hall) and were greeted by a lovely sight. There were a lot of monks standing in front of Kondo, chanting. It was lovely to listen to them, I tried to take a video on my phone, but it wouldn't record. I guess it's just one of those things that I will have to remember in my head. The monks seemed to move from building to building, chanting in front of each one, I wonder if it was some kind of blessing that they were doing. They moved from building to building, chanting on front of each one. We walked around the grounds looking at the different buildings.Yesterday it had been quite overcast, but today we were blessed with bright blue skies. Konpon Daito, the Great Pagoda, looked amazing! Yesterday, I didn't go inside but today we did. Kobo Daishi had planned for this to be the centre of
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his monastic complex. It took nearly 70 years to complete the structure.

A short walk from Danjo Garan is Kongobuji, the big temple I had seen yesterday with lots of people coming and going from it. This temple is the head temple of Koyasan Shingon Buddhism. The grounds are free to enter and we had a little walk around those, very pretty. Originally, the whole of Koyasan was known as Kongobuji and there was no specific temple with that name. This building, which is called Kongobuji came about in 1869 by combining two temples. We paid the 500 yen entrance fee, so that we could go inside of the temple. it was big and cool inside, we walked through the corridors looking at the different screen paintings that were exhibited in the rooms. We had been given a ticket when we paid our entrance fee and we headed to the tea room to hand in the ticket and get a cup of green tea. We took the tea to the big room next door and ghad a rest on the floor. There were a lot of people sitting relaxing on the floor. There was also a monk talking, I
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presume he was praying or giving some kind of sermon.

The tea break was nice and then we went off to explore the rest of the temple. We walked along an outside balcony, that wrapped itself around the temple. The grounds were so beautiful. The ground was covered with gravel, which sounds pretty crappy, but it was immaculately groomed. We wondered how the monks/gardeners got it so perfect, there wasn't a stone out of place. Also the trees had a tinge of autumn colour to them, it was just so pretty. We headed back into the temple. The kitchen was massive and we had a goo look around that. It was really interesting to see what it would have been like back in the day.

As we left the temple, we saw the big group of monks walking on the street. I tried to get some pictures of them, it was really nice to see, as normally, you just see the monks in the temple or an odd one or two walking along the street. Yesterday, I had spied a lot of people coming down one of the backstreets to the main road and I wondered what was
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up there. After consulting the map, we decided that they must have been to Kongosanmaiin, which is a World Heritage Area. It was really quiet up here off the main tourist trail. We wandered around the temple. It was pretty and quiet. The highlight of the temple is its Tahoto, which is a two story pagoda. This pagoda was built in 1223 by Hojo Masako, for the repose of her husaband, Minamoto no Yoritomo and their son, Sanetomo. This Tahoto is the oldest one in Koyasan and is listed as a National Treasure.

We had finished seeing all the sights we wanted to see, now it was time to turn our attention to Koyasan's famous foods. I had spotted a place yesterday that often had a queue outside of it, and since it was really close we headed there. Yskimochi-kusa is a store that sells all kinds of traditional Japanese deserts. They were really cheap, too. I think we paid about 120 yen each for a little rice cake pattie filled with red bean. There was a seating area inside of the store, so we took a rest there munching on the rice cakes. They were really good, I
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definitely could have eaten a few more. Also there was a tea dispenser, so I drank a couple of cups. The staff were lovely and gave us directions to the next food place we wanted to visit.

Koyasan is famous for tofu, Koya-Dofu (freeze -dried tofu) and Goma-Dofu (sesame tofu). We wandered along the back streets away from the city centre to find the shop we were after, I was convinced we were going in the wrong direction as everywhere looked really residential, however after a few minutes walk we found the place we wanted. There were a few people milling about outside the shop, it didn't look too busy. What gave it away for me about how busy it gets is the fact on this small quiet residential looking street, the store had its own parking attendant to guide cars safely into the two parking spots in front of the store. I was told that this places gets so busy, they can have sold out of tofu by midday. It was after three when we arrived, I hope they had plenty left! We were in luck, being a Sunday, there was still plenty left. Since we were travelling
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we couldn't buy the tofu to take home as it has a limited shelf life and would also need to be refrigerated. The store also sells bowls of tofu that you can eat there. I think there were only two types on offer, savoury and sweet. I think it cost between 300 and 400 yen a bowl. I opted for savoury and my friend went for sweet, this meant we could try both. I'm pretty sure that this was Goma-dofu, which is made with roasted ground white sesame seeds, that are boiled together with the starch from powdered arrowroot. The texture is amazing, so smooth and silky, not like regular tofu, it is a little like sundubu (I only know its Korean name), but still has the firmness of regular tofu. We had had some last night for dinner at the temple, but this was even better. My savoury one was served in a bowl with soy sauce and blob of wasabi on top, delicious, and my frined's had sweet rice cake flour (?) on top. Both were lovely, but I definitely preferred the savoury one.

There were a couple of other famous rice cake shops we wanted to
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try. We headed back down to the main street. The first one we came to had already closed, bugger! These ones were different to the ones we'd had earlier, but we wouldn't get to try them. The other place was just couple of doors down and was still open. We bought a couple of the rice cakes, I think these ones had green tea in the dough, and munched away on them in front of the shop. Across the street was Karukayado (Karukayado Hall), this place was really interesting. Inside, there are pictures on the wall, with the story written out underneath, that tells the story of two Buddhist monks. The first monk was married to one woman, but fell in love with another woman, they had a child together. The man couldn't be with either one, so he went to Koyasan to be a monk. His child wanted to meet him so he travelled with his mother to Koyasan, since women weren't allowed to enter the mountain those days, the boy hiked alone to Koyasan to find his father. When the boy reached Koyasan, he came across a monk and asked if he knew his father. This monk was
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his father but he lied and told the boy that his father had died, as he didn't want to be distracted from Buddhism. The boy returned to the inn where his mother was waiting,but she had passed away suddenly. The boy, now all alone in the world, returned to Koyasan and became a monk, worshiping with his father. A really interesting story, after reading it, I had to buy an ema (votive plate) from the temple as I knew the reason and story behind the picture on it.

Time was getting on and since we had seen all the major sights, we decided to head back to the temple and collect our bags. When we were there, my friend got talking to the baby faced monk. She asked him if he was at university, to which he replied that he was still in high school. We were both in shock. I admire him as I could never do anything like that. Getting up so early every morning to pray, going to school, do stuff around the temple and look after guests. Amazing! There was a man playing with a ball with a small boy in the courtyard. I thought
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that they were guests. However when we were leaving, hew came over to say bye to us, I realised that he was the older Japanese monk we'd had tea with that morning. The bus journey was pretty quick, the roads are so windy, I did wonder if we were going to veer off, but the bus drivers drove very carefully.

At Koyasan station, we took the cable car down the hill. It was quite crowded and we had to stand. I tried to get some photos of the cable car going down the hill, but there was one bloke standing right in the way, argh! I did managed to get some, the best bit was the circular bit in the middle, where two trains pass each other. When we got to Gorukubashi Station, the train was there waiting. It was pretty full by the time we got on, so we had to stand for the journey to Hashimoto. Then we changed to the train to Namba, (I think we got to sit down on this one) but got off at Tengachaya, as that is where my ticket was valid to. We had to walk about five minutes to find
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the subway station we needed and then we were on the train to Umeda.

We arrived at Umeda Station and headed off in the direction of the hostel. It didn't take us too long to get there, maybe about a 15 to 20 minute walk. We got all checked in and headed up to our dorm room. We were in a female dorm tonight, we were lucky enough to both snag bottom bunks. Now it as time for food. My friend had been looking up some places on the internet and had found a good place nearby. We were going to have Okonomiyaki, savoury pancake, since it is the Osaka version of the dish is the most well-known. The restaurant we went to was called Hacchan, it was quite small and really old school on the inside. Yet another reason why I love Japan, so many small independent restaurants, sometimes it feels like Korea has been taken over with chain restaurants.

The restaurant was empty when we went in, the waitress was lovely, so sweet and chatty. When she found out we were staying at J-Hoppers just down the road, she presented me with a small origami bird,
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so kind. She talked us through the menu. We decided to order a mixed okonomiyaki and a noodle dish. The food came pretty quickly. First up was the noodle dish we had ordered. I think I have found another new favourite food in Japan. I really love omurice in Korea (I think it is originally a Japanese dish), which is fried rice wrapped up in an omelette. Well put on the grill in front of us was the noodle version. It was so freaking good, noodles coated with some kind of soy sauce sauce and squid wrapped up in an omelette. I need this dish in my life again soon. The mixed okonomiyaki came a few minutes later. That was delicious, too. It was filled with squid, shrimp, bacon and veggies. The squid was some of the best I have had in my life, cooked to perfection. The dishes were quite small, and I was still feeling a bit hungry, so we ordered one more, this time we had a shrimp one. It was really tasty, too. But, on reflection, I would have preferred a squid one, as the squid was just amazing.


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