The slow train out of Kyoto chugged into the suburbs and then out into a patchwork of rice paddies and bamboo groves. That dappled green blur turned to a darker hue as farms gave way to forest and at the end of the line I traded the train car for a funicular that took me 800 metres up the side of Mount Koya in about 5 minutes. Exciting the cable car, I lurched a bit (whether from the uneven sidewalk or the sudden change in altitude) and found my way onto a bus for the next phase of my journey up a winding mountain road. The mountain, called Kōya-san in Japanese, is a sacred Buddhist site started in 805 by the monk Kobo Daishi. It has been an important pilgrimage destination for many years but now it is also a UNESCO-designated area with 120 temples, a small town, a university, the largest rock garden in Japan and Okunoin – an enormous cemetery that has been growing up around Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum. After my kaiseki ryōri meal at Yuzuya Ryokan, I was interested in staying in shukubō (temple lodgings) and eating shōjin ryōri, the vegetarian food cooked for and prepared by monks so I planned to stay a few days to explore.
The road was so narrow that we had to pull off the road and come to a complete stop so that the oncoming bus could squeeze past, and even then the road jack-knifed so severely that one miscalculation would have sent a vehicle right down to the train station below. Arriving at the gates to Kōya-san, we were met by a large stone Buddha standing guard in a red robe and a promotional banner advertising the site’s 1200th anniversary next year. 1200 years! For several minutes, I was agog at the sheer age of the place but also at the determination of the early pilgrims. This was decidedly not an easy place to get to even in the modern age so their journeys would have been long and treacherous. I learned later that women were banned from the town’s temples for a significant part of history so in order to pray at Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum they had to take an even more dangerous and remote route through the mountains.
Once we were inside the gates the town lost its aura of remoteness. It was both bigger and busier than I expected and we picked up people from bus stops and passed shopkeepers closing up for the evening, dragging in shelves of prettily wrapped products. There was a large pagoda-shaped temple looming over the road and demanding attention with its red beams, blue kanji, and gold-painted wooden lanterns lining the entrance, but other temples were small, humble, and set back from the road. Most had some kind of gate with paper lanterns to welcome guests and as we drove past I tried to catch a glimpse of the gardens and temples inside. In the driveway of one, I saw a monk sweeping leaves into a circle with s straw broom – a Zen exercise.
At Ekoin, the monastery I had chosen to stay at, there was an ornate wooden gate carved with swirls and accented with copper pieces. Through it, I could see a pond in the garden surrounded with stone sculptures, stubby trees, and rocky outcrops rising up to the main temple up above, as well as a row of potted lotus plants lining the driveway. A young monk ran out to greet me and took me to my room on the first floor. As at Yuzuya Ryokan, I stored my shoes in a cubby and put on borrowed slippers to enter the room which was sparsely decorated with tatami mat flooring, a low table with a tea set, cushions, an alcove with a scroll and sadly, another television. A blue and white cotton yukata (pajama robe) was hanging in the corner for me to wear to the bath and paper screens opened onto a small patio with a wicker chair and a serene scene; fragrant cedar trees, rocks with scrub trees and mosses, and a fountain bubbling in the pond. I sighed happily. It had felt like quite a journey but I had the satisfaction of one who has reached their destination and was looking forward to dinner and a bath.
Shōjin ryōri is vegetarian but the Shingon Buddhism sect also prohibits eating root vegetables – potatoes, carrots, onion, garlic, etc. – and dairy is not frequently consumed in Japan so I was intrigued about what my “sumptuous feast” would entail. However, I was not in the least concerned. At this point in my journey, I was well aware of the culinary reach that was possible and had eaten all manner of delicious things I never knew existed. At the monastery, dinner is served in your room so at the appointed hour a trio of young monks arrived at my door carrying lacquer boxes that were unpacked to showcase an incredible meal – three trays each containing smaller containers and beautiful ceramic plates laden with delicacies, as well as the staples; rice, tea, soy sauce, and a special fall harvest beer. I didn’t know where to start!
On the main tray in front of me was steamed rice, pickles and clear soup with radish cakes floating in it, and some unidentified assorted vegetables which my menu suggested might consist of: Japanese radish, perilla leaf, wakame seaweed, Chinese yam, sword bean flowers, bayberry, raw konjac and vinegared miso sauce. Having eaten very few of these ingredients prior to my trip to Japan (I didn’t even know what konjac was), I was out of luck, but I enjoyed them thoroughly….a combination of a little bit salty and a slight tang from the vinegar and miso. The next dish was a simmered dish with snow peas, chestnut, young corn, shiitake mushroom and yuba (dried soy-milk skin) which I devoured, feeling grateful for all of the variety but also for the small portions. The final dish held tofu in sesame oil. This is something I eat fairly often at home but here I really relished the texture of the tofu and the nuttiness of the oil as I marvelled at all of the different types of food and methods of food preparation in front of me.
I tried to pace myself but I as swapped the main tray with the second tray (allowing myself a few minutes to get out of the kneeling position to try and regain some feeling in my feet) I realized that I was already starting to feel full. Yikes! But quitting wasn’t an option – the tray in front of me now held hassun – a delicious fried dumpling with Chinese yam and candied Japanese plum, assorted tempura with sweet potato, shishitō pepper, laver seaweed, pumpkin and eggplant – and I dug in. There was another simmered dish that contained Kōya-dōfu, a local delicacy of freeze-dried and reconstituted tofu with rolled kelp, wheat gluten, and more snow peas. The next day I saw some for sale in one of the shops and was tempted to buy some but I realized I had already bought too many treats and still needed some room in my luggage for presents.
My feet had completely fallen asleep by this point in the meal and I was starting to groan under the weight of all that food but I saw that the third tray held delicate soba noodles with soba sauce in a beautiful ceramic container, a bowl of dark brown hijiki seaweed, and a couple of pieces of fruit, and I realized that of course, the order of the trays contained perfect pacing. The third tray was cool and cleansing and not that difficult to finish, especially with some tea and the last of my beer, so I swapped trays again, ate up and then laid myself out on my tatami mat, relieving my aching legs. In Japan, children are taught to sit on their knees from an early age so they are quite used to this position but after weeks in Japan, I was still only able to do about 5 minutes at a time. I could have easily had a little nap on the floor but the monks were coming back to pick up the trays and I still wanted to visit the graveyard.
To call Okunoin a graveyard is the most grievous kind of understatement but that’s what I thought I was going to see when I set out in the dark after dinner. I knew that the sun had set and that the moon was still nearly full (I’d been at the full moon ceremony the night before in Kyoto) but I hadn’t really counted on it being so incredibly dark. There were some streetlights and a couple of lights on in the town but as I walked and walked and walked and wondered when I was going to get to the main gates, and then wondered if I had taken a wrong turn out of town, I couldn’t help being a little uneasy. But I eventually arrived at the gates and the ubiquitous washing station with its stone fountain and bamboo ladles.
I’d been walking for about half an hour at this point and didn’t have a map with me. I had no idea where the mausoleum was but I figured I’d walk along the path for a while and see what I could see. That turned out to be not very much… there was a promenade that seemed to be relatively new as all of the tiles were level and no weeds growing through the cracks. Along the sides were some stone lanterns typical of the but several were burned out and a few inches behind them all I could make out was shaggy undergrowth and the occasional outline of a statue in the moonlight. I kept walking but the farther I got into the cemetery, the more scared I got but I couldn’t figure out why. Because I was in a graveyard? Ridiculous. At night? No. Did I hear drums in the distance? Certainly not. The possibility of dengue fever? Maybe that one…a couple of tourists had gotten it at a temple in Tokyo a few weeks before my trip. But no. The two men who fell in behind me? Ordinarily, this would have put me on my guard, especially combined with the cemetery, remote mountain top, darkness and my incredibly poor footwear but come on, this was Japan! One of the safest countries in the world and not only that but a MONASTERY in Japan. I kept walking. Eventually, I did give up and turn around because I was an hour away from my bed and still hadn’t really seen anything.
The next day I learned that I had taken the wrong fork in the road and walked almost to the far end of the Okunoin, unknowingly passing hundreds and hundreds of graves as I pressed on in the dark, and also that while it is an incredibly holy and serene place, Okunoin is still a little bit creepy in the daytime. I probably wouldn’t have come in the dark if I had seen it first but in the fresh light of morning I could hear woodpeckers hammering away and calling to each other and the smell of cedar and moss was lovely. From the main path I had walked the night before were all kinds of trails and dirt paths leading off into family complexes (marked by mossy Torii gates) and forest. Some of the cedars must have been big when the site was created because they are ancient now. I found one huge statue almost knocked on its side simply because a cedar tree bigger than I could put my arms around had kept growing beside it.
The site is sacred because Kobo Daishi is believed to be in eternal meditation in the temple but throughout history, people have buried their families and loved ones close by (or set up a monument) so that when he wakes up, he will be able to revive them as well. But the oldest monument in the cemetery was constructed in the year 997 and there are hundreds more covered in moss and crumbling. This place is OLD and it feels as though the stone has in some way started to return to the earth. In places where new marble has been used its newness feels jarring…like being polished is an affront somehow.
In spite of its age, it’s evident that this is a busy place. Some of the newer monuments have been erected by corporations (a sure sign of the times) and pinwheels are stuck in the ground close to monuments for children, turning slightly in the cool air but never getting up enough movement to rid themselves of moss. Small statues of the Jizo Buddha (a protector of children, pregnant women, and travellers) are everywhere, dressed in knitted toques and aprons with offerings of coins and flowers. I had seen these Jizo Buddha at Hase-dera temple in Kamakura and a fox variation at Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto but there was something unsettling about seeing hundreds of these statues at Okunoin, tucked into the nooks of trees or piled up to cover all the sides of a huge pyramid – all in various stages of decay. Later I read here that “In ancient times it was thought that children who died could not go to Heaven because they had caused great sorrow for their parents. Therefore grieving parents would wrap articles of their children’s clothing around Jizo statues and ask the Jizo to find their children and guide them to Heaven. Over the years this evolved into a tradition of wrapping a red bib around the Jizo when asking for any sort of favor.”
The Kobo Daishi Gobyo mausoleum is very serene and clearly very sacred. To get to it, I crossed a little moat (to an area where no photos are allowed). Monks in saffron robes were sweeping the ground around the Great Hall and inside several people were sitting in silent meditation. Beautiful.
MORNING SERVICE & FIRE CEREMONY
When I got back to my room at night, the monks had cleared away my trays and set up my futon on the floor with a pillow stuffed with buckwheat. I’d slept on this setup a few times by this point on my trip and it was always very comfortable so I keep wondering why it needs to be more complicated than that. I’d been sleeping pretty lightly because of all the strange noises and walls made of paper, but I’d forgotten that I was at a working monastery – soft chimes called the monks to prayer at 4 AM, then again to call everyone else to morning service at 6:30 AM. In case anyone managed to sleep in, Muzak blared out the speakers all over town at 8.
The morning service was at the temple on the hill behind my room but as I’d arrived too late for afternoon meditation the day before, I hadn’t seen it yet. After exchanging my sandals for slippers at the cubby, I came around to the main hall where we were greeted by two monks in black robes and purple overlay with a pattern of circles with vertical crosses on them. We knelt in front of a shrine with candles and an incense burner and a small statue of Buddha and the monks started chanting. Behind the shrine was a deep hall with many more altars and candles and banners of red silk hanging from the ceiling. Then the monks added gongs and cymbals to their chanting and a priest in black robes with a gold overlay came out to stand in front of the altar. He gave a short sermon in Japanese that sounded as though it was rattled off rather quickly but the only people still kneeling nodded appreciatively and we were invited to add a pinch of incense to the burner. When it was time to leave we followed the monks around the hall, bowing to the Buddha and then heading back out into the courtyard where we would attend the fire ceremony.
The Goma fire ritual also happens every morning as part of the monks’ service. In the evening guests are invited to write a prayer on a piece of wood and bring it to the office to be burned in the morning. As we filed into the smaller temple after the morning service one of the monks was seated at the shrine carefully setting up the materials for the fire. He had put on a saffron overlay for this part. While he built the fire in the brazier another monk started steadily drumming. The flames got higher and higher the drumming became faster and faster and then the prayers were added which caused the flames to lick up a bit higher but the climax was when the monk added a bit of oil to the fire and the flames reached almost to the ceiling. It’s quite close quarters in the fire temple and the drumming, chanting and flames are quite sensational. Here’s a short video clip:
The monks brought in trays of steamed rice, pickles, tea, miso soup (made with wakame seaweed, wheat gluten and Japanese honeywort), crispy dried laver seaweed to wrap around pinches of rice, deep-fried soybean curd with vegetables, marinated vegetables, grated Chinese yam, and wheat gluten boiled in soy sauce. It was amazing.
After breakfast, I explored the town and tried to taste as many traditional Kōya-san delicacies as I could find. One specialty was a green paste filled with adzuki beans and wrapped in a banana leaf (a bit slimy and not overly sweet) but my favourite was yakimochi – a rice dumpling filled with black bean paste then fried on a griddle. I had heard that pressed sushi wrapped in persimmon leaves was a specialty of the mountains (because the persimmon leaves help preserve the fish) but I couldn’t find it at any of the shops. I was sad to leave Kōya-san because with all the ancient history, culture, religion and natural beauty that come together here it was certainly a highlight of the trip.