Two more photos from my last supper before my phone died:
The little pink-striped balls in the soup had a light, springy texture. I meditated on the artistic composition of tempura-battered leaf with sprig of crunchy something and a side of horseradish for about five seconds before devouring it.
The man in black came and went, kneeling down and serving me dish after dish. It would have felt weird except that I assumed it was part of his practice of obliterating the ego. Besides, the food was to die for.
Some people daydream of spending time in a mountaintop monastery. Some think it’d be their worst nightmare. I didn’t know what to expect at Koyasan. I hadn’t had time to dig into it beyond just finding a place to sleep, at Shojoshin-in monastery, one of 52 monasteries in Koyasan.
Some of the monasteries don’t accept any visitors, or women or couples, so that ruled out quite a few. The process of finding a place was opaque. I can’t even tell you how I found Shojoshin-in, which turned out to be quite deluxe and conveniently located right next to the entrance to Okunoin cemetery.
My only knowledge of Buddhist retreats was from Keiko, my sister in law. As a grad student in public health, she had done an internship in Thailand. Afterwards, she went to a Buddhist retreat center in the countryside for two weeks. There was no internet or phone available, so my brother was kind of bent out of shape about not knowing what was going on with her.
Her description: She had a small cell with a hard, narrow bed. Visitors were required to wake at 5am, meditate for an hour, then attend a two-hour group meditation, then they got a bowl of rice for breakfast. Then they meditated off and on all day and ate more simple fare. They never left the center to go sightseeing because there wasn’t anything to see in the surrounding area. That’s as much as I retained of her story. It sounded dreadful and I stopped listening because I knew I would never do that. I knew Koyasan would be a step up, but not how much of a step up.
To paint a picture, here’s the intro from the glossy Guide to Koyasan brochure available in Japanese, English, Korean, Spanish, and Chinese.
Koyasan is a center of Buddhist study and practice, located in Wakayama Prefecture at an elevation of about 900 meters [2,953 feet]. Koyasan is a highland valley extending 6km [3.7 miles] east to west and 3km [1.8 miles] north to south. It has a circumference of 15km [9 miles] and is surrounded by eight low peaks. The topography is reminiscent of the center of a lotus flower surrounded by eight petals.
Koyasan was founded about 12 centuries ago by the great Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi as a center for Shingon Buddhist training. His wish was to establish a monastery deep in the mountains. He wanted it far from worldly distractions where Buddhist monks could practice and pray for peace and the welfare of the people. Emperor Saga granted him the use of this land in 816. From around the end of the tenth century, the belief arose that Kobo Daishi Kukai had not passed away, but had rather entered an eternal meditation at Okunoin for the liberation of all beings. Faith in Kobo Daishi Kukai has sustained generations of people and drawn pilgrims for millennium.
For me, Okunoin cemetery was the main event in Koyasan. I visited it three times.
Right after my fabulous first-night dinner, I stepped next door into Okunoin. It was twilight. Silent. I was the only visitor in this cemetery of 200,000 graves.
Did I take the opportunity to feel the serenity after my hectic day of travel? No, I treated the place like one gigantic photo opp.
It was impossible to capture the scale of the thousand-year-old cedars.
I tried including statues that were about 12-feet tall (4 meters).
I took multiple photos of jizos, of which I already had 100 photos from visits to other shrines.
It only occurs to me now, in retrospect, to ask: why did I need to capture everything?