Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Koyasan, Japan: Living With Monks in Temples

In Kyoto, I'd met a guy in my hostel from Canada named Jamie - he was on a similar schedule to me for Kyoto/Osaka, so we spent the morning at a small local onsen near our hostel in Kyoto, then took an evening train to Osaka to our hostel.

Jamie and I spent a couple days in Osaka before and after Kōyasan, but for purposes of this blog and combining them in this city format I've chosen, I'm writing about Kōyasan first.

What It's All About:
Kōyasan, or Mount Koya, is a series of eight leafy beautiful mountain peaks that is largely known as the headquarters and birthplace of Shingon Buddhism in Japan.  There was an original monastery hat has now blossomed into over 120 temples in the area. A unique experience, for both Buddhists and tourists alike, is being able to visit Kōyasan and stay in one of these temple monasteries overnight - you get the amazing local experience of being able to stay in a monastery with monks, and you can observe some of their daily rituals and prayers, as well as enjoy the gorgeous leafiness of nature. So much nature.

You seriously walk down the street and beautiful nature is freaking everywhere.

I had read about Kōyasan (while researching places near Osaka and Kyoto that I'd never visited), and was immediately intrigued. It doesn't really fit a backpacker budget but it sounded so, so cool. After much research, I had made a reservation to stay at one of the temples, called Ekoin: it wasn't exorbitantly priced (some of the temples definitely are), reviews were amazing, the temple was supposed to be beautiful, and people liked the amount of interaction they got with the monks. Last minute, Jamie decided to join me in Kōyasan after I'd explained all about it in my (possibly) superlative-heavy way of describing things I think are cool.

A row of small Ojizo-sama statues - these are the protectors of children, and since Japanese believe both living and non-living things have a life/soul, they often dress them up in bibs or hats to protect them from the cold.

Seriously mystical foggy forest cemetery of Okunoin

Koyasan was one of the most peaceful, beautiful places I've ever been - the entire place feels very out-of-the-way and secluded (even despite the fact that many of the temples have become a weensy bit more commercialized to accommodate tourist dollars).  It was actually a complete breath of fresh air, and such a unique, beautiful, humbling experience: eating the vegetarian meals the monks typically eat, staying in futons on tatami mats, getting to observe morning prayers, walking amongst the insanely beautiful mountain scenery and temples and memorials. It rained the entire time we were in Koyasan, but I can't help but say it was still one of my favorite places to visit.

Cliffnotes of the Day:
  • Took a two-hour local train out to Kōyasan from Osaka. Once you arrive at the last line on the train, you transfer to a cool little cable car to take you up the mountain - it makes some kind of very steep ascent in only 5 minutes. From there, there are tons of buses that drop you off near all the temples.

My Koyasan map - all the orange dots are the temples that provide lodging for guests. 

Here is the magical little entrance to our temple, Ekoin Temple!

We were ushered into our traditional room by one of the monks, where we were welcomed with tea and a snack

You'd better believe Jamie and I instantly put on the yukatas provided by the room in order to have our tea. Also, how adorable is our room!?

Watch and learn, Mulan

A sweet little rock garden next to our balcony

  • We then changed back into our regular clothes to wander the stunning temple grounds.

Despite the rain, our temple was still ridiculously beautiful

Some of the rooms inside the temple

Room with tatami mat floors

Some of the corridors - the temple was actually quite large.

  • Around 5:30, we were offered the option to join a beginner's meditation session with one of the monks, which Jamie and I both very obviously did (though would we classify me as a beginner after my 3-day intensive meditation course in Nepal...?) (that answer is yes).  Am I allowed to call this monk adorable?  He was. I loved the way he described things and instructed, as well as his explanations - he started with a very simple Level 1 meditation where we focused only on our breathing and counting our inhales/exhales.  Apparently, you're not supposed to count above 10 (you start over after this), so that we are not tempted to do the human thing and compare how long we meditated one day vs. another. I, again, fail at meditation - but something about doing it in a room with a monk in a temple on a mountain in Japan - was just so, so cool. It felt different.

When Jamie and I got back to our room after meditation, a monk came in and served us dinner in the room. Everything here is vegetarian, a lot of the tofu is super-high in protein, and it was all delicious.

We moseyed on over to the public onsen in the temple after dinner (SO great, my love affair with the baths continues), then returned to the room later as more monks came in to replace our tables with comfy futon beds. Zzzzzzzzz

  • The next morning, we got up to attend the 6:30am monks' prayers (this involved getting up at 6:15am, of course) - it was in the main temple room, and it was so cool to get to be a part of. Two monks chanted numerous mantras as one of them occasionally hit a gong. We were then allowed to come up to the altar one-by-one and give thanks to our ancestors by sprinkling some stuff (honestly, I have zero idea what it was - it looked like small dried flower buds) into a larger offering bowl in incense. We then bowed three times, all while the monks continued reciting their mantras. It was so, so cool.

A photo I snagged of the main temple after morning ceremonies. You can see people lining up in the back - after the service was over, we were allowed to walk to the back and give thanks to the numerous different Buddha statues back there.

After morning ritual, we walked down to another, smaller temple in the complex for the morning Goma fire ritual at 7:00AM.  This involves a fire that is believed to be cleansing, where a monk burns sticks that symbolize the root of human suffering. You had the option to write some of your prayers, wishes, etc. on slabs of wood and have the monk burn them in the fire as well.

After the morning ceremony and the Goma fire ritual, we got back to our room for breakfast!

So many tiny mystery items on this plate

  • With that, we finished all the morning activities you can participate in at the temple - it was such a cool experience. Even though the religion may not be your own, getting to take some part in some of the rituals and customs - especially involving things everyone can get behind, i.e. thanking your ancestors, making wishes, etc. - is such a neat, neat thing.
  • There are tons of gorgeous hikes you can do around Koyasan (including some multi-day ones) since the area is BEAUTIFUL - but given that it was still drizzling, Jamie and I opted to go walking down to Okunoin. Okunoin is one of the most sacred sites in Japan: it is where the mausoleum of the founder of Shingon Buddhism, Kobo Daishi, lies. Up until the mausoleum is a 2km walk that winds through Japan's largest cemetery, with over 200,000 tombstones, as people over the centuries (including some very prominent figures) have wanted to be buried close to Kobo Daishi in death, in order to receive salvation. And it is, of course, stunning.

The cemetery, tombstones, and memorials in the forest on the way to Kobo Daishi's mausoleum

So many beautiful statues

Here is a monument erected to Kobo Daishi himself, who established Koyasan in the 9th century

More ojizosamas and offerings

I like these ojizosama statues and their red beanies

With the mist, the forest had a serious magical, beautiful quality to it

  • After about an hour, we reached the huge temple and mausoleum of Kobo Daishi. From here on, you can't take photos or anything out of respect - but it was insanely beautiful. An outer temple is lined with over 10,000 eternally-lit lanterns (two of these lanterns are believed to have been burning nonstop for over 900 years).  Behind this temple is the actual mausoleum, called the Gobyo, where it is said Kobo Daishi still meditates daily. Food is still left at the doors of this temple daily, for Kobo Daishi (also called Kukai) to receive his meals.

Some of the eternally lit lanterns housed outside another temple.

  • After visiting the mausoleum, Jamie and I wound our way back through the forest, along an alternate route our of the cemetery.

Everywhere in Koyasan is a postcard. Seriously.

Mystical, giant old cedar trees

The pathway lit up on our way back

  • We made our way back to the temple to pick up our things, and then left Koyasan by early evening to head back to Osaka.

Insane views of the fog over the mountains on the train ride back to Osaka

  • I realize I used the same 10 words throughout this entire post to describe my experience at Koyasan - but all I can impress upon you is how freaking cool (and different!) the entire experience was. Something about being holed up in a traditional Japanese temple, in a holy Buddhist site, on top of a misty mountain in Japan - it made you feel like you were a million miles from everything in your life, and it is certainly one of the experiences I will never, ever forget.  While Koyasan is easy to visit as a tourist, it's also a little more off the beaten path, and the whole experience was nothing short of magical. So, so magical. Must-see.

Fun Facts of the Day:
  • While it felt traditional, our temple had amazing, amazing WiFi throughout the entire grounds. Like, even different rooms would switch to different WiFi networks called names like "temple2", "templemain", etc.  So much for being unplugged from the real world. I Snapped the heck out of the entire ordeal.
  • Temple lodging is called shukubo.
  • I would have stayed longer in Koyasan, absolutely, if it wouldn't have bankrupted me. 

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