Only 2-hours away from the flashing neon of the karaoke and pachinko parlors of Osaka, Koyasan peacefully nestles itself within the eight mountain peaks of Mt. Koya just as the jewel sits in the eight petals of the lotus becoming a natural mandala, a Buddhist symbol of perfection. I stood with Kurt Kubli Genso, my monk guide, in Okunoin Cemetery at the entrance of the “Bridge of Enlightenment.” The bridge is a threshold to one of the most sacred sites in all of Koyasan, Japan. We had already meandered through two kilometers of the Koyasan cold and its ancient moss-covered cemetery that dresses tombstones with ceremonial red bibs and Buddhas wear lipstick and rouge. We had already crossed two previous bridges, that of “Death and Purification.” It had already been quite a day.
Each of the thirty-seven planks before us that made up the “Bridge of Enlightenment” represented important Buddhist symbols. As I took a deep breath preparing toward the spiritual first board Kurt reminded me, “Sometimes children will be sure to step on each board to connect with all the energy of enlightenment.” And so did I.
At the end of the cemetery’s rainbow and my 37 little steps towards perfection sits the mausoleum of Japan’s most celebrated priest, Kukai, posthumously known as Kobo Daishi (774-836). Kobo Daishi is the father of Shingon Buddhism and one of the most multifaceted influences in Japan’s history. Consider him a Japanese Benjamin Franklin, one thousand years before old Ben was making it happen here in the States. What I found most visually interesting about Kobo Daishi’s tomb were the thousands of lanterns hanging throughout the temple representing thousands of worshippers of the past. I would have taken some photos, but Kurt reminded me that it would have been very disrespectful. So I didn’t.
Today, Kobo Daishi’s legacy continues in Koyasan with 117 temples with 53 acting as shukubo (temples hosting overnight guests). This night I would stay at Muryoin Temple. I left my shoes at the door, and slipped on a pair of small red slippers following Kurt down the sparsely decorated hallway to my room. Traditional rice paper walls and doors that slid on tracks with a futon and a pot of green tea waited for me. The room also included an “art space.” Kurt moved me before the Japanese hand-painted scroll. He then stepped back to get at look at both the art and myself together before pointing out the importance of guests becoming part of the art and creating something new. Kurt then shared Buddhist analogies and philosophy. We discussed distractions of the mind, happiness, enlightenment and the general way for treating those around you, “Monks treat everyone the same because no one knows when our friends become our enemies or when our enemies become our friends,” Kurt said.
Then from behind my room’s rice paper wall called the shadow of a young monk. Dinner was served. I must admit after a long day of sightseeing I hoped to find a super-sized cheeseburger combo waiting for me. However, after diving into the beautifully presented vegetarian faire consisting of seasonable vegetables and fruit, tempura, wheat gluten, miso soup and koya-dofu (a tasty freeze-dried tofu) I enjoyed my favorite meal in Japan. It was delicious. Kurt explained later that meat-enamored guests may order fish with meals for an additional charge. Shukubo room prices average around ¥9500 (about $93), which includes a room, breakfast dinner and one of the best travel values in Japan.
If there was a downside to my experience, it was the awkwardness of communal living. Simple facilities are set up for the monk’s way of life. Aromatic bathrooms and shared showers are far from the average American vacation experience. However, it is the communal living, which integrates visitors into experiencing the Shingon Monk way of life.
At 5:30 am, a tapping awakened me on my thin bedroom door. We took our places, kneeling before the temple room where the ceremony was set to begin. All the monks wore yellow and black ceremonial robes and showed deliberateness in every movement. There was fire, offering of tea and incense to Kobo Daishi, and lots of chanting. During the chanting, I closed my eyes and mumbled along pretending I understood what was said. As I listened, one voice in particular stood out from the rest. It was the voice of a woman. I would later learn that women had not allowed into Koyasan until the late 19th century.
After the fire ceremony, I spent morning tea sipping with the Habukawa, the highest priest at Muryokoin Temple, Kurt, a German monk named Matthias and his wife (the female voice I heard), Croatian-born, and bald, Sonja Jurkovic. The Habukawa sat quietly as Sonja looked at her husband with affection and shared with me the story of their meeting at a Buddhist retreat and advice to the beginning student. “As soon as you enter here, you learned. Learned by seeing and doing. Learned slowly to love everyone and everything.” The Habukawa continued, “Buddhism brings peace to the mind. In Japan, it is already here. Perhaps soon the whole world.” I had to admit I hoped he was right; I felt relaxed from this unique experience.
Cumbayah aside, Koyasan is a stress-relieving, spiritual destination that is revealed by a short train ride from congested Osaka and made me understand in a distant way how Buddhist nun, Sonja, must have felt after I asked her, “What brought you here?” Her reply, “Good Luck.”
Written and photographed by Devin Galaudet