Tag Archives: Japanese Monasteries

Stupa-fied

Okunoin, as you might imagine from the fact that it has 200,000 graves, is vast.  There are two main paths that traverse its length, and I walked up one of them.  It’s mostly level, so one is able to take in the jumble of headstones, jizos, toriis, statues, and stupas, which in Okunoin are composed of large hewn stones representing the five elements.

You can see stupas in the background of this shot of Kobo Daishi.

There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of Kobo D statues.  I liked this one where he’s got what looks like a bowl on his head.

I stopped at a small wooden structure that contained, according to a sign, “a stone that is heavy or light” depending on whether the person trying to lift it is evil or good.  I stuck my hand in the opening and tried to lift it; it was heavy.

After 20 minutes I arrived at the lantern hall. It contains many … lanterns, 10,000 as a matter of fact.  Someone must have kept a log as they were donated over the centuries.  One in particular was called out in my brochure: “In 1016, a woman sold her hair to buy a lantern to pray for the rest of her parents.”  Why that one lantern, I wondered?  Surely over the course of millennia there must be other stories to rival the selling of hair.

The hall was closed so I walked around to see what, if anything, was beyond it.  And here was the very modest mausoleum of Kobo Daishi. Meals are served to him twice a day and from what I read that’s a tourist sight kind of like the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace.

I lighted a candle in memory of my aunt.  If Kobo Daishi could still be alive but in a trance state, praying for the liberation of all beings, maybe my aunt could still be “alive” too, praying for the discovery of a new Tater Tot hotdish recipe.

Suddenly sadness welled up and I started sobbing.  Where had that come from?

Well, I told myself: if you can’t cry in a cemetery with 200,000 dead people, where can you?

I heard a shuffling noise nearby and turned to see a young monk sitting on a bench in the gloaming.  I hadn’t noticed him, and I don’t like anyone seeing me cry.  I walked on.

At the midpoint of the path there was a sign that said it was good luck to walk the path clockwise.  Interesting.  I recalled walking around a lake in Minnesota with a Native American friend once, who had insisted on walking clockwise.  “It’s good medicine,” she had told me.

I had walked counterclockwise.  Which way should I walk back?  I got all confused, plus my stuffed emotions were still simmering.  There was a row of exquisite statues dedicated to the dead, one more fantastic than the next.  The drill was, you threw an offering (of course) into the water at their feet and said a prayer for your loved one.  What I really wanted was to take photos of these statues—they were the most beautiful in Okunoin, in my estimation.

But first I thought I’d step into the bathroom and that’s when I dropped my phone in the toilet and … no more photos.

Was it bad juju?  Was I being punished for not walking clockwise, or for being a smarty pants about all this mystical stuff?  No.  My cell fell in the loo because I was wearing a jacket for the first time in weeks, I wasn’t used to it and I wasn’t paying attention, and the cell slipped out of the pocket.

I have practiced meditation from time to time in order to be more focused and able to stay in the moment.  Maybe it was time to get back to it.

That night I knelt at the kotatsu, which is what I have learned is the name of the blanket-covered heated table, and researched what to do when your cell phone gets wet.  Here’s a photo of one from an online store.

I received numerous suggestions from friends to dry my phone in rice. Hmmm … now where could I find rice?

In the Monastery

I waited on the platform for the train to Gokurakubashi, from whence I would take a cable car, and then a bus, to the monastery.  It was unclear to me, and still is, why I would take a cable car—not a train—directly to Koyasan station.

I had to hold myself back from jumping onto a waiting train. I must not have been the only one to feel this impulse, because a recorded announcement kept repeating in English, “Do Not board the train on platform x.  If you are going to Koyasan, there will be a later train.”

The monastery registration had stated that “visitors must arrive by 5:00 pm.”  It was only 3:00, so I wasn’t worried.  Who am I kidding?  My mind was busily generating worst-case scenarios.  But then the train came, and the scenery was vertiginous and spectacular, and I forgot to worry.

These signs were everywhere.  I’m not sure to what they referred.

I had imagined a rickety old gondola creaking and swaying up the mountain.  Instead I boarded a sleek, very expensive-looking car—as it should be, since it held dozens of people and their luggage.

In five minutes, it lifted us up a thousand feet. Or maybe it was 300.  I have no idea but it was steep and high. Whee!

The station at the top was decked out with glass globes and strips of paper fluttering in the breeze—maybe for the Tanabata festival?

Spiffy uniformed guides waited at the exit and efficiently pointed us to our respective buses.  Twenty minutes later I stepped into the monastery, where a man in black led me on a march around the facility.  In staccato English, he pointed—“Shoes, no!”—then point elsewhere—“Shoes okay!

“Meals seven in morning, six thirty evening.  You come down.  Women bath open, four to seven.  Gates close nine o’clock.  Meditation six a.m.  Yukata, no!”

This last part I would screw up the next morning.

He led me to my room which was up a steep flight of stairs.

The room was quiet and spacious and there was a view of the koi pond.  The man in black left me and I inspected the features.

There was a sink!  This small amenity would save trips down the hall to the shared bathroom area to fill the kettle, and I’d be able to wash my clothes, which by now were crunchy with dried sweat.

But why, why couldn’t pink champagne come out?

The internet was easy and fast, and there was a bean bun snack.  By now I was famished, and the snack fueled my hunger.  I rooted around in my suitcase, wondering if maybe I’d forgotten I had a pizza in there.  I came across a gift box of yuba, the specialty tofu I had been toting around since I left Nikko two weeks before.  It was heavy, so why not do myself a favor and just eat it now?  Turned out it was heavy because it was vacuum packed in broth.  I wolfed it down.

The best food is when you’re really hungry, which most of us aren’t, very often.

Several hours later the man in black served me dinner in a private room.  As someone who loves fruits and vegetables and beans and tofu, I was almost so enthralled I forgot to eat.  Except I didn’t, of course.

I tucked in to the 15 foods in 24 dishes.  The food was fab but I felt a bit isolated.  I had imagined a communal dining hall where I would meet interesting fellow travelers.  I could hear a pair of Aussies talking on the other side of this screen.

But never mind.  I had exploring to do.

In real time, I attended a training last night to volunteer as an election judge. I didn’t realize that part of it could involve “challenging” people who may not be eligible to vote, including felons.  I felt very sad, imagining anyone with a record caring enough to vote, then being questioned in front of dozens of his fellow citizens.

I hope I don’t have to do it, but if I do, maybe I am about the most empathetic person for the job.