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Friday, May 19, 2006

Mount Koya -- Japan's holy retreat

Special to The Japan Times

The young priest Kukai made his perilous journey to China as a member of a Japanese diplomatic mission in 804. Records indicate that he was already a master at dealing with bureaucratic superiors, not only by securing a place on the mission in the first place, but by negotiating (in accomplished Chinese) admission to study esoteric Buddhism at the esteemed Ximingsi Temple in Xi'an (then known as Chang-An), the Tang Dynasty capital and gateway to the Silk Road.

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Monks tread a path through Okunoin Temple on Mount Koya.

There, Kukai (774-835, posthumously named Kobo Daishi) revealed a formidable intellect. Within two years -- instead of the 20 years originally planned -- he was initiated as a master with responsibility to spread The Teachings.

In 806, Kukai returned to face Japanese political and religious factions jostling for power -- a minefield he navigated with considerable skill. After a few years he received imperial permission to establish in Wakayama Prefecture a monastic retreat on Mount Koya, then a remote, forested wilderness, several days' walk and climb from the old capital, Kyoto.

Old folk say that Mount Koya is a unique treasure, the home of Japan's lost soul. As a pilgrimage site and focus of religious veneration for 1,200 years, it has remained aloof from the secular world, and even though the complex of temples and monasteries (now almost a small town) can be reached by cable-tram and road, a palpable magic still lingers. So far I have been there on two occasions; the first time not with motives of any special piety, but more in search of relief from the tropical heat of August in Kyoto. On ascending to nearly 1,000 meters above sea level, the cool mist and shade of the mountains offered delicious relief and, punctuated with the sounds of forest insects, conjured an appropriate atmosphere of mystery.

Kukai's story kept coming to mind as the cable-car climbed the mountain. We read that four ships set sail on the diplomatic mission but only two arrived safely in China: one carrying Kukai, while the other carried the priest Saicho -- another saintly figure who returned to Japan the following year to found another religious retreat on Mount Hiei, which overlooks Kyoto. One wonders what happened to the ships en route, how the priests found their way to their respective temples, and how they could master the complexities of their chosen Buddhist sects in such a short time.

Even the language problems would seem to have been insurmountable. We try to imagine Kukai even finding time to study in what was then the greatest city in the world -- a cosmopolitan center of trade and learning for Koreans, Japanese, Persians, Turks and others from kingdoms around Asia and along the Silk Road. The exotic sights and atmosphere would surely have engaged any inquiring mind. Having achieved the highest rank of Eighth Patriarch after studying the obscure teachings of Shingon (True Word) Buddhism, in a foreign language, and for such a comparatively brief time, it was obvious that Kukai was far from ordinary.

I remember arriving as the light was fading, the shadows getting longer, and decided first to visit the Okunoin Temple, surrounded by mountains and towering cedar trees, at the end of a path through a cemetery of over half a million tombs. Such is the prestige of Mount Koya in the minds of the faithful, that for more than 1,000 years it has been chosen by many of Japan's great and good for the storage of their mortal remains. Kukai himself is buried in Okunoin. His hagiography records that when he sensed his last days were approaching, he left a will requesting not to be cremated after death in the usual Buddhist practice. Then he entered a final level of samadhi meditation -- attainable only by the most exceptional adepts -- and is said to have become a bodhisattva, remaining on Earth to help mortal souls until the appearance of the next Maitreya Buddha. He is believed by many to still survive in this state, housed in his mausoleum, where he is regularly fed and attended to by high-ranking monks of the temple. Lanterns here have been kept burning continuously since the year 816.

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The tomb of the Tokugawa clan (above); vegetarian cuisine rustled up by monks on Mount Koya
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The walkway back passes between the tombs of numerous luminaries. Some are grand, such as the mausoleum for the Tokugawa clan, the all-powerful rulers of Japan for a quarter of a millennium; it's richly carved and well-maintained. Others are modest stones, covered with moss and tipping from the force of cedar-tree roots. Nature's claim on the man-made is almost as assertive here as it is in Angkor Wat. But at odds with the stones of antiquity are those tombs owned by modern-day organizations. They are probably the only ones left able to afford land here, and the edifices reflect the pursuits of their owners. A tractor, baseball gloves, bat and ball, and a nurse in uniform can be seen immortalized in stone, underscoring a continuity of faith. One wonders what these monuments will be like in 100, or 1,000 years time.

Despite its monastic nature, Mount Koya is welcoming to visitors and although there are no hotels, 53 of the temples provide accommodation. These are known as shukubo and have facilities similar to those of a traditional Japanese inn. It costs about 9,500 yen per person per night, which includes two meals. Rooms will usually be floored with tatami, on which futon bedding will be laid out. Vegetarian cuisine known as shojinryori will be served that is not only delicious but also remarkable in its textural variety. This is a highly evolved art; something like steamed abalone will actually turn out to be made of shiitake mushrooms; the chicken with sesame is made of tofu. And, as is usual in Japan, there is no shortage of beer and sake.

There are more than 40,000 major cultural properties on Mount Koya, including 200 designated National Treasures. Shukubo gardens are contemplative compositions of moss, ferns, rocks and plants more associated with mountain cold. All the attendants are young trainee priests who serve the meals, clean up the rooms, and will cordially invite visitors to the early-morning service of chants and prayers.

I spoke to one monk pouring the sake. Like many, he had become disenchanted with the soulless future facing him as a Japanese salaryman. He had traveled abroad, experimented with drugs, got "into trouble," and finally found his way through family connections to monastic life and Mount Koya. Here he found structure to his life, and a hierarchy that could be climbed with work and merit. He was not alone, he said. Others had similar stories -- and hardly anyone returned to their old ways.

The chanting of the morning service is hypnotic and eases the jolt of getting up at what in normal life would be considered to be a most uncivilized hour. For this alone it is worth the effort. Breakfast follows -- again, all vegetarian dishes with rice and green tea, but simpler than the elaborations of the night before. Daylight brings earthly cravings, however, and gagging for caffeine, I wandered out to look for one of those life-saving vending machines ubiquitous in Japan. Fortune smiled with a greater reward and after following hints of a seductive aroma, I found a coffee shop packed with monks getting through their second or third cup. A seat soon appeared, and I was able to join them and get recharged to face the day.

Mount Koya is a working institution, busy each day with conducting rituals and looking after pilgrims and visitors. The artistic and spiritual depths are not easily revealed, but this is a place that will reward immediately with its eternal atmosphere. Perhaps the answer is to return from time to time. It is an experience that will enable everyone to look at themselves from a different vantage point. Perceptions of life may change with age, but Mount Koya will still be there, and remain the same.

Koyasan Shukubo Association, 600 Koyasan Koya-cho Ito-gun, Wakayama Prefecture, 648-0211. Call (0736) 56-2616; fax (0736) 56-2889; or check www.shukubo.jp/
From Osaka, Mount Koya is 90 minutes by express train. Take the Nankai Railway Koyasan Line to Gokuraku-bashi Station, where you change to cable car. The train fare is 850 yen, and the five-minute cable-car ride is 360 yen. Then it's five to 15 minutes by bus to your temple of choice.

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