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KS Cover no. 75 2006 August

August 2006 :: 075

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 palette.

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 red carpet.

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.

Text & photos: Jono David

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Ways & Means


From Nankai Station, Namba, Osaka: Take an express train on the Nankai Koya-sen (line) to Gokurakubashi Station, the last station. About 1 hour 30 minutes one way, ¥850 one way. From Gokurakubashi Station, take the cable car up the hill. Five minutes, ¥380 one way. You can get a combined train/cable car ticket in Namba, total ¥1120. From the cable car terminal, take a #2 bus to Senjuinbashi- mae bus stop. About 10 minutes, ¥280 one way. The stop is in front of the Koya-san Tourist Office.


There are sixty historical temples, called shukubo, which accommodate tourists. All of them include evening and morning meals in the price. Advanced bookings are recommended during festivals and tourist times, the latter being primarily during the hot and muggy months of May to September. Recommended, Fumonin Temple, Koya-san, Ito-gun, Wakayama Prefecture, 648-0211. Tel: 0736-56-2224, fax: 0736-56-4550. About ¥9,000 per person, including two meals. Little English is spoken, so non-Japanese speaking visitors may wish to book through the Koyasan Tourist Association.


Koya-san Tourist Association, 600 Kaya-san, Koyacho, Ito-gun, Wakayama Prefecture.
Tel: 0736-56-2616
Fax: 0736-56-2889