The Koyasan experience

It is Christmas Eve. A couple of hours ago around nine pm I was driving home from a busy mall. There was no snow around. Unlike you would expect for Christmas, it was raining. But there was little traffic in the streets. Just a quiet drive. And happy Christmas songs in the radio. I was thinking of my next trip. The Christmas will be with family, but the New Year Eve and the New Year will be with some friends beyond the Arctic Circle in Norway. Bit weird. In the middle of winter a trip to the North. But we will have our summer in winter. In one month time this will be the end of the world at the Southern hemisphere. In Norway and New Zealand I will meet with people, with whom I traveled Japan last year.

I just realised that there is still one place we visited in Japan that I did not comment on this blog. A sacred mountain called Koyasan. It is different part of the world. They do not celebrate Christmas there for sure. But still I associate it with quiet and soothing.


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Bell tower at the major temple complex on the Koya Mount. The only white structure we saw during our trip to Japan.


Koyasan, otherwise called Mount Koya, it is the main seat of Shingon sect, one of the most important Buddhist sects in Japan. The place is visited by both Japanese pilgrims and foreign tourists, who usually stay there overnight to experience a Buddhist temple lodging (called shukubo in Japanese). The sect was set up more than a thousand years ago by Kōbō-Daishi called also Kūkai (774–835), a Japanese monk. He was the one, who decided to locate the sect’s main seat on the Mount Koya.

Travelling Japan one visits many shrines and temples (>>>). But it is something else to just visit and something else to stay overnight. So like many others we booked an overnight stay in one of many Buddhist monasteries at Mount Koya. The place is truly secluded and very quiet. To get there we needed to get into a special cable train that took us up onto the mount.


The cable train to Mount Koya. The journey lasts a bit more than five minutes.


As we got to the Mount Koya railway station, we stayed for a short time there. But quite quickly we were approached by a Japanese, who asked us to hurry to take the bus. We were already aware that public transport beyond bigger cities in Japan closes in late afternoon. But in Koyasan the last bus form the railway station was around three pm. It was full of tourists who wanted a Buddhist monastery experience.

We looked around. The streets of the Koyatown were very quiet. As life would stop there.


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Koyatown. The first impression. A quiet street. 16:15.


To be frank, my expectations as to shukubo were a bit different. I imagined a place full of monks dressed in orange (like in many films with Buddhist monks), and us standing behind them and allowed to watch their rituals from behind. I think I was that time inspired by the episode of House of Cards, where Buddhist monks were performing a slow ritual of painting a picture with colourfull sand on a table. After a month of work the picture was just taken off the table put into a pot and later in a ceremony thrown into a river.

Our monastery experience was not like that. The sect we were staying with was very small. In fact we dealt with only one monk and one novice (using the European vocabulary). We were explained that a Buddhist sect may be a very small one. I think the idea was just about some kind of a tourist attraction on a mountain considered as a sacred one. As we arrived we were invited to our cells (there were only eight at our part of a monastery) and to a tea ceremony, where our monk host explained us the rules. We were explained that in two hours we will be served a vegetarian meal, then we will be invited to a small tour of the Koyasan oldest temple complex (Kongobuji Temple). Then we would have another vegetarian meal. The night curfew was at ten. In the very morning at six we were to attend a Buddhist ceremony.

As we have not eaten from the early morning in Kyoto, we decided to go to a restaurant. Remembering we have two meals ahead of us, we did not exaggerate. But later that evening it turned out it was good idea. We were served vegetarian delicacies. For us it was more about tasting Japanese vegetarian food. Below some photos of our lodging and our vegetarian meals.


Our monastery experience in Koyasan. Quiet. Soothing. We did not obeyed the curfew. It was too early for us. But imagine fourteen people sitting quietly in one cell spending the whole late evening whispering to each other. 


In the afternoon and in the early evening we managed to see a bit of the Koyatown. There was a kind of a small city centre there. Most of the buildings were traditional ones. Many of them looked like containing some monastic life. Koyosan turned out to be a secluded place where you can truly slow down. … And take many photos of picturesque architecture surrounded by much greenery. I think it was there as I first time saw a Japanese taking out carefully grass from a moss lawn.


Just a glimpse of the Koyosan city and its main temple complex.  It was not necessarily difficult to make shots with no one in the photo. Even in the early afternoon. 


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The major temple complex in Koyasan during our late evening walk. The building is the Kondo Hall. Major ceremonies are held there.  If I had to make something otherwise than I did at our Koyosan evening I would take a tripod with me to the complex. Major buildings can be seen well. But in the dark in most parts you go alongside paths marked by small lamps. As Koyosan is truly secluded place, and no other lights can be seen in the dark, the feeling and views are incredible.


I have no photographs about our evening and the early morning in the monastery. It was private. In the evening a small collective bath was given to our disposal. Basically it was only us – only two other female visitors, I think from the Netherlands, were at the this part of the monastery. They used the bath earlier than us, so we had our privacy. The hot jacuzzi helped our mussels to rest. After ten days of intensive sightseeing and long travelling it was really soothing. Still two of our group asked us to let them to bath individually. As the night curfew was around ten, we had to leave the bath earlier than we wanted. In the morning we were only allowed to visit a general restroom. There was no possibility to take a shower.

The next day we were supposed to wake up early to attend a kind of a religious ceremony in the monastery sacred part. We were not allowed to carry our cameras. The rule we have already have learned in other Buddhist temples and monasteries. The small hall was dark full of intensive scent. First we went through a cleansing ceremony. It involved clapping hands, fumes and hands rubbing ash. Then we sang sutras. Sutra is a kind of wise texts or teachings. Our host gave us printed copies with the text in English that we were supposed to recite with lower voice in a regular rhythm. The whole ceremony lasted around an hour. Before it I was still hoping we would see more monks. But it was it only us and our monk host. There were around thirty people inside the sacred hall, most of us of European or American look. Only one Japanese couple.

We left the monastery around ten in the morning collecting our luggage in a staple. We went to visit one of the oldest cemeteries in Japan located around the Kōbō-Daishi resting place. The cemetery is huge and very old with many graves couple of hundred years old (more on Okunoin cemetery >>>).


At the Okunoin cemetery.


Later around one pm we took the train down the mountain and left for Tokyo.

Index of posts on Japan >>>

Okunoin cemetery

Traveling Japan one visits many Shinto and Buddhist temples. For a person from a totally different cultural and religious background, not even counting in the language barrier, the artifacts one founds or rituals one sees there are barely understandable.

When I decided to take a trip to Japan, my knowledge of this country was limited as it could have been at all. Neither I had time for any preparation. As the trip was organised by two colleagues of mine, the one of which was graduate in Japanese culture, I fully relied on them. Only after coming back home, having in mind the observations and hundreds of photos I made in Japan, I started to dig the internet on additional information. Today, a bit longer than a year after we came back, with more than twenty posts on Japan, including a longer summary on shrines and temples (>>>) I finally got to the memories and pictures from Koyasan. While on spot, I knew only we are on some kind of a sanctuary mountain and came there to spend a night in a temple.

Koyasan, otherwise called Mount Koya, it is the main seat of Shingon sect, one of the most important Buddhist sects in Japan. The place is visited by both Japanese pilgrims and foreign tourists, who usually stay there overnight to experience a Buddhist temple lodging (called shukubo in Japanese). Besides some sightseeing in the Mount Koya temple complex and the surrounding town, the other obligatory stop is the Okunoin temple and the Okunoin cemetery.

The Okunoin temple is in fact a mausoleum of Kōbō-Daishi called also Kūkai (774–835), the Japanese monk who was the founder of the Shingon sect. He was the one, who decided to locate the sect’s main seat on the Mount Koya. For more than thousand years people from all over Japan chose the neighbourhood of his mausoleum as their burial site. Today, with more than 200,000 graves (tombstones) it is the largest cemetery in Japan. 

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JMA_Koyasan_cemetery_02One of the entrances to the cemetery. Going with slow pace, taking short rounds and making photos it took us around forty minutes to reach the mausoleum. If taken straight, the one km route can be of course done in shorter time. But it is better to plan in more time to sightsee the cemetery. Continue reading

Japan diaries 2.0. Shrines and temples. A note by an absolute beginner

Japan diaries 2.0. Shrines and temples. A note by an absolute beginner

Memories and notes of an European, first time in Japan, written or rewritten one year after the trip.


Japan is famous for its specific religious system combining Buddhism and Shinto. Buddhism that roots in India came to Japan from the continental Asia. It is based on the teachings of Gautama Buddha and his successors. Shinto on the other hand is originally a Japanese ‘traditional religion’ based on ancient believes in ancestors and deities. For centuries, the two confessions overlapped. Japan had times (XIX century, the so called Meiji Restoration) of intensive politics to split the Buddhism from Shinto or even disroot Buddhism as not originally Japanese religion. Those efforts finally failed. Shinto and Buddhism coexist in the Japanese culture. Many Japanese declare even being tied to both confessions. This religious coexistence is however not easy to tackle for an outsider.

On our Japanese journey we saw numerous shrines and temples. I cannot say that I fully understand that what I saw, particularly that we traveled without a professional guide. Below I will sum up all that I realised on spot and later at home digging a bit in the Internet resources.


A SHINTO SHRINE VS A BUDDHIST TEMPLE. THE BASICS

A Shinto shrine may be a very small spot marked by a torii (Japanese gate to a sacred place). It can however be a bigger complex of buildings, as well. A shrine is devoted to a specific deity. Even if in the Western nomenclature we would call it a temple, it will still be called a shrine in Japan. (This is of course an English description. Japanese have many different names describing different kinds of shrines.) The most of the bigger (sometimes quite huge) religious building complexes we visited in Japan were however Buddhist temples. Buddhist temples belong to and are run by different schools of Buddhism (sects), and simultaneously play a role of a monastery, with interiors accessible only to few. This is possibly why I had an impression that temple complexes are somehow bigger (more widespread) than shrines, which is of course not a thumb rule.

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Entrance to the Yasaka-jinja shrine, Kyoto, well widespread, located at the eastern edge of Gion, the famous Geisha district. 

At the first sight, those bigger temple or shrine complexes, seemed to us quite similar in construction pattern – widespread premises with many buildings and more or less complex gates of comparable design. Now sitting at home comparing the pictures, recalling memories and reading information available in the Internet, I realise that they were not that similar at all. Some had statues inside, like those of the Buddha, or just gods or goddesses (deities), and the whole temple seemed to be organised around them. The others however, were just sanctuaries with some objects inside, the figures (statues) even if present did not play a central role. It turns out that these are the basic difference between a Buddhist and a Shinto temple or shrine. Continue reading