A lucky thing happened on the way to Koyasan – I met a Japanese-American writer studying spiritual practices in Japan on the bus into town, who turned about to be a wonderful guide to the history of the place and some of the basics of Buddhism.
Koyasan is a secluded mountain top religious complex of temples, founded in 815 by Kobo Daishi, who brought Shingon Buddhism from China to Japan, and who is now resting in eternal meditation in Okuno-in, the cemetery in Koyasan. He gets fed twice a day by the priests and is given a daily change of clothes. There was a moment as I walked through the dark lantern-lit cemetery with Marie and a lovely couple from the Ukraine, when we all thought we were about to see him, as he is rumoured to walk the cemetery at night. But it turned out to be a lone tourist. The walk was atmospheric nonetheless – we saw enormous moss-covered tombstones, monuments to the samurai and their modern replacements – corporations.
Marie answered some of my deep questions about Buddhism like “why are the Buddhas holding so many things?” “Because your problems are different than mine, and so the tools they need to help will be different for you then for me.”
I had followed Marie from the bus to the Shosoji-in temple, one of the oldest in Koyasan. Visitors can do temple stays in Koyasan, which include a room, two Buddhist vegetarian meals, and morning prayer services. My dinner was a revelation – so many dishes served in a variety of tiny pottery bowls. Ginger soup with chewy rice dumplings in the bottom, spiced seasonal vegetables, and the most incredible of all, a shimmering cube of the creamiest most delicious tofu I've ever eaten, lying in soy sauce with a dollop of wasabi. I was amazed by the amount of preparation that must have gone into this one meal, which also meant it was an experience not to be repeated in my kitchen.
I've since learned that the Buddhist vegetarian (vegan) cuisine served is based on the concepts of five flavours, five cooking methods and five colours. A meal should include a grilled dish, a deep-fried dish, a pickled dish, a tofu dish and a soup dish. Originally for monks, meals have been developed into something more elaborate to be served to guests at temples. Namely, to tourists – none of the other guests at Shoshoji-in were Japanese, or likely Buddhist. While pilgrims come to stay at the temples at significant times of the year, I left wondering how much temple life in Koyasan is now kept alive by the less than devote tourist industry.
The second day in Koyasan was even more enriching than the first. We listened to the priests chanting sutras in the morning prayers after which, thanks to Marie, I was able to follow her and one of the priests on a private tour of some of the more sacred temple rooms. We went to the “true hondo” or real temple, where Kobo Daishi was when he was alive, and we saw a beautiful Buddha carved by Japan's Michelangelo – Ishikawa Uncho.
Later in the morning I participated with Marie in Jukai, a formal and ancient Buddhist ceremony for receiving Buddhist lay precepts, guides to living a wholesome and virtuous life. The ceremony was entirely in Japanese and in the dark, so I couldn't read along with my English translation. While I wished I had more knowledge of Buddhism to fully appreciate the ceremony, it was personal and intimate in the darkness.
It was a tour and a temple experience that I would not have had without a Japanese-speaking researcher by my side. I'm looking forward to Marie's book on Japan's response to death and disaster.
Up the hill to Koyasan – elevation 867m
Train to Koyasan: 92m to 535m in 19.8km
Cable Car: 535m to 867m in 0.8km