SYNOPSIS:  About the other five parts of the UNESCO monuments that comprise the Koyasan Mountain cultural site: a gate, a stupa, two tombs, the Shingon headquarters, and the training center for future monks.  About a nightly adventure at  the monastery and  Buddhist morning ceremonies.  About statistics that make your head spin.  But all of this not in this order.


In 1832 as one of my sources notes, there were 1812 temples on mount Koya.  Today, only (!) 117 are left.  And that for town a fraction the size of Ann Arbor.  I can only wonder how many active monks there are in town.  2000 perhaps?  Even 5000 would not surprise me.  52 of these temples are known as shukubo, providing lodgings and food for visitors following the old tradition of taking in pilgrims and wandering monks.  I lived in temple #51, the Sekishoin, definitely not one of the first choices for most visitors and guide books, and one of the more run-down temples, but the cheapest one I could find.  I had no complaints:  my room was spacious — you count rooms here by the size of the tatami mats, that means I had 8+2, that is 8 mats plus two feet of wooden space, I had a private bath, one of those fancy heated toilets, even a heated mirror (yes!), a closet, a nice window ledge, a pleasant view into the temple garden, and there was the public bath downstairs.  I was provided with a Japanese jukata (bathrobe) every day, towels, tea, and a traditional breakfast.  I had a TV — useless as there is no English-speaking channel anywhere — and most importantly, I had on and off wifi.  A Buddhist temple with wifi even if it did not work reliably — we have come a long way!

At 7 AM a loudspeaker announcement wakes you up if you are not up already. I had been told that this is the call for the morning prayer — a daily gathering by the monks in which overnight guests like me are invited to join.  On day one we were three guests in total: an old bent-over man whom I had met the night before under not very pleasant circumstances — more on that later, and Jonathan, a young guy from Australia who must not have read the five-page rule book as he showed up in the jukata, an offence specifically mentioned!

Seven monks in all participated; two of them quite young, the others all seasoned religious veterans.  Sutras are read in unison and in Sanskrit, interspersed with the ringing of the dorje (bell), mudras (hand gestures) made with the vajra (thunderbolt) and the striking of the gong.

As six of the monks were still going on with the recitations, one of them, the head monk, came out to the worshippers’ space, faced us and simultaneously, talked in Japanese — I was told later that he welcomed us and pretty much said that Buddhism can not be comprehended in one day, but that it’s a great path to pursue for a lifetime.  He then startled me as he called each of us over to him to kneel on the floor facing him.  He then had a mini-personalized speech for each of us.  He tried to say a couple of words for me in English — the key word I guess was happiness.  And for happiness, he put a bracelet on my arms which I learned should be worn for a minimum of three days and kept for a year to insure its effectiveness.  I will do my best.  That was a really nice thing.  After that it was breakfast time.  But that was only Jonathan and myself.  The old guy vanished.  And I was not unhappy to see him go.

Remember two nights ago when I arrived late?  The monastery was already dark when I came.  There was one monk at the completely cluttered head office, obviously only waiting for me, since I had a reservation.  I was shown one corridor, led up one staircase and taken into my room where it wasn’t long until loud banging started nearby.  I did not know my way around and wondered if this should be my business, but I checked.  Just two rooms down from me a person was banging on the inside of the door.  Tools and boards were piled up in the corridor and I dismissed this as late construction even though it seemed odd going on 10 PM by then.

But by 11 PM I had received multiple phone calls from a guy who talked and nearly yelled at me in fast Japanese no matter how many times I calmly repeated that I did not speak Japanese and that he should stop calling me.  The only way to stop this nuisance was to unplug the phone.  But then the banging started again.  What to do?

It was 11:30 PM by now and I wondered if the guy down the hall perhaps had a problem and could not leave the room?

I went to look for help.  You have no idea how many long, dark corridors there are in an old monastery.  And prayer halls and kitchens and more corridors — nobody anywhere.  No monk in site, no living soul.  By now the main office phone kept ringing nonstop and I knew exactly who was calling.  It became very creepy.  Was I alone in this place with a maniac?  I ventured outside to the next monastery to get help.  But the town was deserted at 8:30; there was no living soul up by midnight!  I ran through the corridors calling for help in English and saying the one thing I could in Japanese:  I am sorry (to bother you).  Sumi MasenNo answer.

On to the next monastery.  The same thing.  Of course, all the doors and halls and buildings are open.  I probably could have walked right into most of the rooms had I cared.  No response.  Finally, down one of the hallways some light:  I knocked on the door with my two phrases:  Sumi Masen.  I am sorry.  I need help.

A young couple emerged and I explained myself.  He was from Peru, she from Argentina, but she knew some Japanese.  They came with me.  And lo and behold, she was able to communicate.  At first he simply banged again!  He indeed had locked himself in and had gotten himself into a state of hysteria — it was hard to calm him down.  But she talked him through a few motions and there he was — he managed to open his lock.  He was easily in his 80’s, looked disheveled and confused and was in no mood to apologize.  But he promised to stop calling and to be quiet so I could sleep.

With certain unease I retreated to my room.  Just how crazy was this guy?  Would he come after me in the middle of the night?  I set up my two doors with a few booby traps and went to sleep hoping for the best.  I saw him at the morning prayer.  Again, he showed no sign of apology or even recognition of the fact that we had met before.  What a lively first night.

But back to business: the cemetery lies at the eastern part of the town.  Today I headed west.  All in all, the town measures roughly 6 km east-west and 3km north-south.  It is located in a mountain plateau surrounded by 8 tall peaks.  8 being a holy number and this plateau looking a bit like a lotus flower all added, I am sure, to the power perceived to reside in this location.  Legend has it that Kobo Daishi shot a huge arrow from somewhere to determine the location of his retreat, which landed here…

In many ways it was a more ordinary day than yesterday.  More temples, stupas, Buddhist halls.  I saw a lot and learned a lot.  But I won’t bore you with the details.  Here are just a few highlights: the western entrance gate known as Daimon is just about the biggest double-hipped (indicating high status) gate I have seen anywhere.  It is 25 meters tall, for a gate outright humungous.  Just imagine all the women who until 1872 saw nothing but this.

The famous shogun family of the Tokugawas have two members of their family enshrined in town.  The rest are buried in Nikko.  Two identical structures stand side by side decorated with wood carvings and metalworks, enclosed by a veranda and a stone fence which make the exterior extraordinarily fancy for a tomb.  The inside is not open to the public, but I read that it is filled with gold, silver and lacquer work and a miniature shrine in each which are just about outlandishly fancy.

Wooden architecture falls victim to fire easily.  It is hard to come by anything that actually dates back to the 9th or 10th century that has not been rebuilt multiple times.  So it is a pleasure to have at least one 12th century pagoda that survives in its original and authentic form: the Tahoto, now a part of the Kongo sanmai-in monastery.  It shows that most of these structures started to be made out of natural wood and whitewashed plaster.  The gaudy red of the newer pagodas reflects the taste and religious power shifts of the times more than anything else.

And then there are the two main compounds in town; the training centre of the Shingon sect, the Danjo Garan, literally that means a quiet and secluded place — and the administrative head temple of the sect, the Kongobuji.  The Garan is a loose collection of buildings with the most impressive and largest (yet gaudy red) pagoda in town.  Its interior is open to the public, but photography is forbidden.  A giant central deity is surrounded by four Buddhas and sixteen wooden columns on which 16 Bodhisattvas have been painted.  All of it seems relatively new but it has quite an impact.

The Kongobuji impresses by the largest rock garden in all of Japan, the Banryutei; but it only dates from 1984.  Not that there is anything wrong with making new stuff — just saying…  But what is authentic and old are the paintings on the sliding doors dating from the 16th century.  They are done by some of the most famous masters of the time, including Kano Hogan Motonobu, one of the painters of the famous Kano Painting School which influenced Japanese painting for about 300 years.  And promptly, photography was forbidden again.  But it was easier to sneak a picture here than at the Garan Pagoda.  And I am sure there are gazillions of images available online.

And so another full day went by.  Some guidebooks actually suggest that you can do all of Koyasan in a single day trip from Osaka.  How on earth that should be possible is beyond me.  I only focused on the UNESCO sites.  There are 117 temples in town.  Just picture how often I had to tear myself away from yet another gate leading into yet another courtyard where yet another kondo (prayer hall) might be of interest.  It is mind boggling.  Aside from temple overload, Koyosan seems to be an ordinary village with schools, a pharmacy, a fire station, stores, restaurants (even if they all close by nightfall) and homes.  There are parks and play grounds, and bus lines.  It is quaint and quiet here.  And best of all, the climate is great.  At this time of the year where the rest of Japan is hot and humid, it is cool and pleasant up here.

After an hour rest I went out for the night to watch the beginnings of the birthday party for Kobo Daisho.  But more about that tomorrow.

Good night.

3 comments so far

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  1. This is fantastic – almost shades of a classic Japanese ghost tale. I’m sure it was disquieting at the time, however (and likely he was ‘sun-downing’, which happens to many older folks). Glad everything settled into more pleasant and routine for you.

  2. What a kafkaesque experience to find yourself locked up in a monastery.

  3. Elisabeth, I am so glad that you are keeping this marvelous record of your exciting experiences. You have certainly had your share of excitement and frustration. But I know that you are tough and resourceful. Stay safe and enjoy!