Mount Koya

After our ecstatic dance party, we embarked on our longest travel day yet, destination: Mount Koya. Mount Koya is one of the holiest mountains in Japanese Buddhism, at one point housing over 4,000 temples.

Our first mode of transport was a large ferry that seemed to be more of a cargo ship. It didn’t have much room for the people on board, and didn’t even have seating. Everyone sat on carpeted areas on one deck of the three-deck ship.

After the two-hour boat ride, we discovered that I had somehow lost our rainbow umbrella. I was sad. I apparently lose things left and right while traveling, but oh well!

Then we caught a series of trains, finally ending with a cable car up Mount Koya itself to the town at the top of the mountain. The cable car was built in the 1930s and travels slowly up a 30-degree hillside. It’s so steep that the interior of the cable car is just a series of steps with benches on the small landings in between.

From the cable car, we rode yet another bus to our lodging, a monastery. In the town of Koya there are over 56 temples and monasteries that take guests. Originally, because it was such a holy place, only pilgrims stayed in these lodgings, but now they allow nonbelievers too, lucky for us.

The monastery was wonderfully peaceful and beautiful, and it was definitely one of the best places we’ve stayed.

It also had lovely gardens on the grounds, including a small pond with fish and newts.

We barely made it to the monastery in time for dinner, which was vegetarian. Japanese vegetarian food is good, but I think I like Chinese vegetarian cuisine better. At any rate, we were exhausted, so we didn’t do much besides eat and sleep.

The next day we both got up at 5:30 for morning prayers. The monks have a morning chanting and pray service starting at 6 a.m. It was definitely interesting, though we didn’t have any kind of guide to translate their prayers or sutras, which would have been much more interesting. It was nice to see monks who were truly devoted, as opposed to the monks at many temples we’ve been to who use most of their time acting as tour guides.

After that, we had breakfast and started our day obscenely early. The first stop on our tour of Koya was Kukai’s tomb. Kukai was the monk that founded the first temple on Koya in 816. Before founding the temple, legend has it that Kukai traveled to China to study Buddhism. Upon his return, he prayed to find a suitable place to found a temple in Japan, and threw his staff. When he returned to Japan, he found his staff on Mount Koya, and so founded a temple there. Kukai founded a new sect of Buddhism, which I can’t really explain well with as little knowledge as I have. But from what I understand, they believe that a person can attain enlightenment within one lifetime, instead of having to reincarnate. It is believed that when this happens, the person will live forever in the state of “eternal meditation,” known to you and me as death. According to scriptures, Kukai predicted his death in 835 and went into a state of deep mediation. To this day, monks bring Kukai three meals a day and place them at his tomb, where I suppose he sits, meditating still.

Because of his holiness, people have been erecting tombs near his for centuries, creating an incredibly large cemetery around his tomb. Lucky for us, this cemetery is right next to the monastery where we were staying (oh joy!). Did I mention I’m afraid of ghosts?

At the far end of the cemetery lies a shrine for Kukai that is illuminated by thousands of lanterns donated by the devoted. It was really quite beautiful. The basement is lined by perhaps a million small statues also donated by parishioners. Behind the shrine is Kukai’s actual tomb, but you cannot go in and witness his meditation.

The cemetery wasn’t too spooky in the early morning, but we took a walk there at dusk after dinner, and I was terrified. Jeff thought that was really funny, but I had nightmares every night we stayed there.

Because the whole town in filled with temples, we bought a through ticket for a selection of them so we wouldn’t have choose for ourselves which ones were worthwhile.

The most beautiful of the temples was basically the Vatican for the sect of Buddhism that Kukai founded. The entire interior was covered in murals of birds, trees, mountains, flowers, rivers — everything you can imagine. It was lovely, but not photos were allowed.

We also visited a museum of artifacts from temples on the mountain. It had many, many statues of different Buddhas as well as very old scrolls of sutras that were beautifully embroidered. Because the objects on display are holy, visitors were allowed to offer incense and money in front of each display, which I’ve never seen at any museum before. Unfortunately there wasn’t any English, so we didn’t learn very much about the exhibits.

Then we wandered from temple to temple, all of which were nestled in a lovely old forest that was turning red for an early fall.

One of the items on our through tickets was a pass for participating in a Buddhist ceremony that sounded something like confirmation. I found it a little unsettling that you could just buy your way into what sounded like a quickie conversion to Buddhism, but I suppose that they were just trying to be welcoming and let people see what their religion was all about.

The next morning we attended the morning prayer service again, mostly out of respect for our hosts. There was a family of devout Buddhists there and the monks invited them to participate, which must have meant a great deal to them. But after they were finished, the monks invited/ordered the rest of us to also offer incense and do some bowing to their Buddha. I felt pretty awful and uncomfortable with it. I think ceremonies like that should really be saved for the devoted, because if a nonbeliever like myself does the same ceremony, isn’t it a little disrespectful and cheapening? That’s one of the things I hate the most about temples open to tourists — people burning incense and spinning prayer wheels just for pictures and a laugh. At any rate, I suppose the monks didn’t want us to feel excluded, and we couldn’t very well refuse, so we did our share of incense burning and bowing at their alter, but I felt dirty all through breakfast.

Since we’d seen all we wanted to the day before, we grabbed our things and headed back down the mountain to our next destination, Osaka, which is probably as different as can be from a monastic retreat.