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A Day in Koyasan

Posted by Max Wood 10th December 2018
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Koyasan, a World Heritage site, is an area surrounded by eight forested peaks reminiscent of, rather appropriately, a blooming lotus flower. Although we certainly couldn’t verify that as the weather was bitter and very overcast when we arrived, nonetheless this sacred site did not lack in ethereal beauty. In general, we had very good weather on the trip reaching nearly 20C at its best, but the following morning there was snow in the air as the temperature hovered just above freezing.

We, like most other visitors, were staying in a shukubo or monastic accommodation; a way for the monks to supplement their limited income. It was a basic room in the traditional Japanese sense with tatami mat floor, fusuma sliding doors and a futon to sleep on, but also very efficient ceiling heaters and en-suite toilet with the standard heated toilet seat to banish any sense of cold. Drinks, including beer, were available via hot and cold dispensers. Our vegetarian dinner prepared by the monks was spectacularly presented. It was as tasty as it was visually beautiful and certainly one of the best meals of the trip.

It had been a busy day to get here from Kyoto through the outskirts of Osaka. We had taken a couple of subway lines and a commuter train before taking the Nankai Koya electric line, which took us out of the city through the countryside and into narrow valleys leading to the mountains. At the end of the line was a funicular, which took us up 500m in 5 minutes with typical Japanese efficiency, before catching a bus to our final destination. It was a pleasure catching public transport in Japan; the quickest way to get about and a feeling for the everyday life of an urbanite Japanese. At times it was very busy, but there was always a calmness beneath the freneticism. People had the knowledge that everything would run on time.

Koyasan is the headquarters of the Shingon sect of esoteric Buddhism. Kongobu-ji, the principal temple, is spread out over a large area; its rooms large, light and airy, encompassed by painted screens showing the surrounding landscape and its founder’s journeys. It felt a very spiritual place. The most impressive area is the rock garden, the largest in Japan, which envelopes the back of the compound. The area had been established as a religious community by Kukai, a scholar and poet, in the 9th century. As a young priest he had travelled in China developing his theology before returning to set up the school in the area. His mausoleum can be found a few kilometres away in Okunoin, the largest cemetery in Japan.

When we arrived at the cemetery it was covered in a chilled mist which went to highlight the unearthly and transcendent nature of the place. Moss and lichen cling to the stupas and statues of all shapes and sizes. Of particular note are the Jizo Bosatsu; stone figures who help to bring enlightenment to all creatures but are especially responsible for looking after the souls of children. The abundant statues are often covered in small aprons and warm hats with maybe a few offerings on the ground given to them by grieving parents who request safe passage of their children to the afterlife. The giant cedar trees rise up into the canopy. At the end of a near 2km track is the mausoleum of Kukai, or Kobo Daishi, as he was known after his ‘death’. People believe that he is in deep meditation in the tomb until the Miroku (the future Buddha) appears and he will be able to interpret the Buddha’s message for others. The cemetery has built up with those waiting for that message. It is a unique place.

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