Besides the obvious differences between the United States and Japan, religion is probably one of the ones that is most prevalent. To be quite honest there are many temples and shrines in this country, but as a whole Japan is not that religious. Not compared to the United States, where I think the majority of people identify with some type of organized religion. Here in Japan I believe the statistic is less then 40% of people identify with a specific religion. Despite this, there are two main religions in Japan, Shinto and various sects of Buddhism.
Interesting (more like boring) fact about myself is that I read a lot of travel blogs and have been known to spend hours perusing on TripAdvisor and one thing that I came across quite often in my searches, was spending the night in a Buddhist Temple or shrine. I never even considered this before moving to Japan, but apparently it’s a cultural must. So that brings me to the point of this blog, Koyasan. I rounded up some friends and booked a night at a temple on Mount Koya, home to one of the holiest towns in Japan, Koyasan.
Koyasan is located in Wakayama Prefecture, which is about a 4 hour drive from where we live in Nagoya. It is the center of Shingon Buddhist training and home Okunoin, Japan’s largest cemetery. Just a quick side note: I used to believe that there was no place better then Michigan in the fall, however, Japan you win…seriously our drive up to Mount Koya was insanely beautiful with all of the fall foliage!
Alright, back to the point. I received a recommendation for a temple to stay in called, Kumagaiji. Spending the night in a temple is similar to a traditional Japanese Ryokan experience, however, they have strict quiet hours starting at 9pm with a wake up time at 6am for morning prayer (more on this later). We were were given a traditional meal of a Buddhist Monk for dinner and breakfast, which is strictly vegetarian. Fun fact about a monks diet is that they are not able to use onion and garlic (and probably other foods that I cannot remember) because they believe that it can effect their frame of mind which in turn effects their practice. Kumagaiji was absolutely beautiful, tranquil, and a the perfect spot to zen.
I have to admit that after about a month of traveling and visitors in Japan this peaceful little getaway was just what I needed. Here are few pictures of Kumagaiji:
Just a quick little history about Koyasan for those interested, if not skip ahead to the next paragraph. Koyasan was founded by the buddhist monk, Kobo Daishi Kukai, when the emperor at the time granted him use of the area in 816. Kobo Daishi was described to us, during a tour we took, to be considered a founder of Japanese culture. He is well known in Japan as a calligrapher and for the creation of Katakana and Hiragana (two of the three alphabets used in Japan). The reason Koyasan was such an appealing place for the practice of buddhism is because it’s nestled up in the mountains away from distractions, and is known to be a peaceful place for the buddhist practice and prayer. I briefly mentioned Okunoin as Japan’s largest cemetery, but it’s also the location of Kobo Daishi Gobyo (Mausoleum of Kobo Daishi). It is believed that Kobo Daishi never died but in fact remains in an eternal meditation, inside the mausoleum. Fun fact about this is there is a kitchen located near the mausoleum where the monks prepare two meals a day for Kobo Daishi. I wish that I had photos of the mausoleum but unfortunately they were not allowed. I recommend a quick Google picture search of “Kobo Daishi Gobyo”, it’s well worth it but doesn’t do the place justice!
We spent the afternoon wandering around the streets of Koyasan and found ourselves Danjo Garan-on, one of the first complexes built by Kobo Daishi. It was such a peaceful place to explore. Although, this is a popular tourist attraction in Japan, it didn’t feel “touristy” like Kyoto, for example, can sometimes feel. Many people I believe travel here on a spiritual journey or are just plain curious about the buddhist religion. I for one found this trip to be incredibly enlightening. Heck I even participated in an evening meditation session, which by the way is much harder then it appears. Any who here are few pics of Danjo Garan-on and Koyasan.
Our last adventure of the evening ended with a guided night tour of Okunoin cemetery, and no it wasn’t a ghost tour, it is actually supposed to be very spiritual to walk through Okunoin at night. It was provided by a monk that gave us a lot of education on the cemetery. It was recommended to us that we try the tour at night and then explore again in the early morning. This is exactly what we did…except it was freezing that night and I may have worn my yukata coat over all the layers, just saying (sorry Kumagaiji)…
One “scary” thing that we came across during our tour was a temple that has a famous well. Supposedly if the person looking down into the well does not see their reflection it means they will die within three years. In case anyone is worried I saw my reflection, so I’m good to go for at least 3+ years. Any who, here are a few snaps.
Last but certainly not least, this trip wouldn’t be complete with out partaking in a little of the buddhist’s holy practices. So the next morning I tore myself from the warmth and comfort of my tatami mat futon to attend the 6am morning prayers. This was by far one of the coolest things I’ve done to date in Japan (and well worth the 6am wake up call). I wish I was able to post a video of it on this blog, but a few photos will have to do. The morning started with a traditional prayer ceremony and then we moved into another area of the temple where a fire ceremony (Homa 護摩) was preformed. It was during this ceremony that we wrote a wish on a wooden stick and placed it in the fire as an offering.
Koyasan was such a unique experience and after spending time there it’s clear why it’s a top 10 “cultural must” for this country. Thanks Japan for hitting the jackpot once again with your beauty, wonder, uniqueness, and allowing this “gaijin” to partake in it.
Alright, well I’ve been blogging quite a bit lately, but I think that a break is coming up. We have more family on their way, so a little more traveling around Japan and then next month New Zealand! If you don’t see me for awhile don’t fear more blogs to come in the future!
With that being said I will leave you this photo of autumn leaves.
Ja mata じゃまた!
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Wow! That was an amazing experience Have to add that to my list Is it easy to organize and get there? Shirley
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I only ever made it to a couple of temples in Japan and kind of regret that now. I was in such a rush getting to grips with the rest of Japanese culture that I ended up missing this out!