Where the monks go
Mt. Koya-san, Wakayama
A hum wafted through Koya-san's cedar trees, creeping up on
me as I photographed the arresting two-storied Konpon Daito
Hall, its red-orange planks appearing freshly yanked from the
furnace. The drone spun me round but all I could see were
sacred wooden buildings, some fatigued by centuries exposed
to the elements.
The black forest enveloped my imagination. The murmur was
supplanted by a hurried shuffle across the pebbled pathways.
The march came to an abrupt halt, and again the cadence drifted
round my ears.
Spinning round again, I spied devotion wrapped up in midmorning
prayers and flowing saffron and maroon robes, streaming
from edifice to edifice. Forsaking Daito, I took aim at the
young monks, zeroing in on their closely shaven heads, their
entwined fingers, their fluid vestments, their wooden geta clogs,
their discipline. It seemed eye contact would contaminate these
sacred moments. Perhaps they would be sent tumbling the
3,000 feet down to Earth, where my excursion began.
Just 90 minutes from the din of Osaka City, the train writhed
its way between the folds of the eight forested peaks which hoist
Koya-san above the world. At the end of the line, I boarded a
cable car which ascended the final few hundred feet at a staggering
35 degrees. I alighted to find sanctuary in the Shingon School
of Esoteric Buddhism. The abbes I had been observing are here
seeking the mysterious kingdom of life within their beings.
I came to these sacred hills in Wakayama Prefecture for a
couple of days' rest by trading urban disorder for nature's array,
by sliding out of a summer loitering in November into the crispness
of autumn. Cool summer temperatures attract throngs of
visitors escaping a sweltering world below.
Kobo Daishi Kukai came for a different purpose. He has been
resting and meditating here for a millennium, as some ten million
believers say. The founder of the Buddhist mission here in AD
816 is regarded as more than a saint, a scholar, and inventor of
Japanese kana syllabary, but as a savior, a Buddhisattva. Because
he is interred here, a visit to Koya-san is a pilgrimage.
From the cable car, I took a bus the final few hairpin miles to
town, only to be dumped in the midst of a clamor I hoped I had
abandoned. Central Koya-san is an archetypal tourist town, replete
with traffic, bus loads of day-trippers, and the obligatory
omiyage souvenir shops. Luckily, though, downtown is a kilometer
-long country lane. All other roads lead to tranquility.
With more than two thousand temples, shrines, stupas, and
assembly buildings to visit, I selected a significant few, beginning
with Kongobu-ji Temple. This monastery is a logical place to
commence since it is the headquarters of the Shingon School
and is also the residence of Koya-san's abbot.
I strode around the lumber structure, admiring its craftsmanship,
its homey emanation, wondering if the head monk had taken
up gardening as a pastime, or if the gardener could find no other
way to enlightenment. Whomever it was, he led me up the garden
path and round the pond.
From there, I took in Reihokan, or the Treasure Museum. It was
built in 1921 as a repository for cultural treasures. Today it stores
and displays some 70,000 items including paintings, sculptures,
and calligraphy. I lost my way in the minimal mountain scenes
depicted in hanging scrolls, the black ink lines drawing on inspiration
to complete the vistas.
I then stepped back outside, inside to one
of those scenes, but warmed by the fiery reds
and oranges of autumn's foliage. I meandered
beneath the vivid canopy, unhurried and becalmed,
admiring Japanese visitors who have
perfected the art of appreciation for nature's
When the colors faded with the setting sun,
I headed to Fumonin Temple where I had
pre-booked a night's lodging. At the main
gate, I was welcomed by two teens setting out
mint green slippers for the guests. They
greeted me by name.
I left my boots and Western expectations at
the genkan, or entrance, and followed one of
the hosts to my room. We shuffled along a
darkened corridor flanked by a moss infested
garden to the right and vacant but stylistic
tatami mat rooms to the left, animated by
intricately painted fusuma paper doors.
In my sanctified chamber, I sank to the tatami
floor, inhaling the fresh scent of the straw mats,
realizing that the room resembled my Osaka
apartment. But when I turned to the window
and glimpsed the manicured garden reflecting
in the stillness of the pond, an ease wrapped
around me. Then I shrank into the crispness
of the provided yukata robe.
My shojin-ryori dinner was served on two
lacquer trays. Kneeling before the vegetarian
provisions of tempura, tofu, and miso soup,
I considered each morsel for its color, its art.
There was nothing unanticipated set out
before me, save for the flavor, the manner,
the deliberate presentation of each tiny dish.
I took up my chopsticks, not with haste, but
with self-possession, just as my host had
solicited me to do so, and proceeded to savor
each mouthful with dilatory consideration.
By the time I had completed my supper,
the sake rice wine I had been drinking was
weighing on my extremities, seducing me to
sleep. I wanted to resist the drowsiness which
felt like a drug, for to capitulate was to relinquish
nirvana and sleep would only bring on
the morning and a regrettable departure.
At 4am however, I was addled by the chatter
of the elderly guests which had perforated
my washi paper windows. My shushes fell on
deaf ears. At 6:20am, I was awakened once
more, summoned this time by the morning
call to prayers.
Throwing back the warmth of my futon bed,
I dressed hastily, and headed to the hondo,
or prayer room. I entered the dark and richly
ornate hall shrouded in plumes of incense.
I knelt among the senior tour group as if to
draw their attention away from the inge, or
priest, marking my territory on a patch of the
For thirty minutes, a drone not unlike that
I heard at Daito, or even traditional Mongolian
throat singing, called to the Buddha. The
only other sounds were the clinks and clangs
of gongs and rattles and cymbals, and the
offer-ings of coins placed upon a pair of low
tables supporting porcelain incense bowls.
Following the service, I retreated to my room,
then to the communal bath for ablutions, and
again to chambers for the morning meal. Once
filled, dressed, packed, and contented, I departed
the equanimity of the temple for the
underworld of Okuno-in Cemetery.
This burial ground, arguably Japan's largest
and most renowned, is dark and ghostly,
dwarfed by towering sugi cypress trees,
camouflaged in moist, fleshy moss. A mystical
walk down a mile-long pathway led me to
Toro-do, or Lantern Hall, which houses
hundreds of lamps including two which are
said to have been burning for nearly 1,000
years. Behind Toro-do, disciples fingered
strings of rosary beads as they paid silent
respects to Kobo Daishi Kukai, preserved
in a mausoleum.
I was beguiled by each tomb and monument
to faithful followers, encrusted by time and
emerald vegetation. Beneath the verdant sway
of the canopy, I felt as if I had stepped out of
time into an ageless world of phantasm. But
when my eyes fell upon a modern-day rocketshaped
tomb, I was launched back to the
present, and the train station.
Slinking down from the sky, I headed home,
pampered, rested, invigorated by the place
where the monks go. Within me, a contented
hum reverberated, but not so loud as to turn
the heads of the other passengers.