Tag Archives: Koyasan

Snap, Snap, Snap

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?

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.

To the Mountain

Day 19 in Japan.  Today I would say farewell to Lynn and travel to Koyasan, where I would spend three nights in a mountaintop monastery.

At 3am my legs woke me and thoughts of my return journey from Koyasan ran through my head.  Why won’t my brain shut up?

Lynn and I breakfasted at Le Bon Vie in the train station, where we were serenaded by ACDC, Ozzy Osborne, and Disney on muzak.  I loaded my backpack with creamer cups, just in case there wasn’t any at the monastery.

At the gate, there was a train in five minutes or an hour, so I said a quick goodbye to Lynn and rolled my bag onto the platform and into a train car.  Neither of us is into emotional displays.  We know we’ll see each other somewhere again.  If one of us kicks the bucket before we make it to our next trip, it will be very sad but we’ll deal with it.

I wrote several posts about Koyasan already—the odyssey of getting there, getting in trouble for dressing inappropriately for the morning meditation, dropping my phone in a toilet, my Resltess Legs jumping off the charts since I’d run out of medication, and attending a fire ceremony.

There was a moment in my journey from Nara to Koyasan that is emblematic of my inner traveler.  I was on a train from Osaka to Hashimoto. We traveled about 10 stops, sat on the tracks for 10 minutes, then began to move backwards.  The knee-jerk, worry-wort part of me started to panic.  Had I accidentally boarded a train that didn’t really go to Hashimoto, even though it said “Hashimoto” on the engine? Would I miss the train I really needed, and never get to Hashimoto, or Koyasan, and end up dead in a rice paddy?!

Simultaneously, the rational me resisted the urge to jump off the train and just … waited. In a few minutes it became clear we had switched tracks.  We were moving backwards at an angle; the train had performed a kind of boomerang. I had snapped a photo of the overhead map (they are too hard to read from one’s seat while the train is in motion) and I consulted it now—we were definitely headed to Hashimoto.

Obsessive planning can cause more stress than letting things unfold.  I couldn’t have known ahead of time that the train would perform a 180.  Many things are only clear on the ground.  This was the day I had fretted about the most of the entire month, and it was easy once I was actually doing it.

The weather was perfect, for me.  Hot and humid and sunny.  The words “Mildly Air Conditioned” were stenciled on the train windows.  I appreciated this—in Minnesota people generally like it cold, so I am forever shivering in over-air-conned rooms.

I appreciated the scenery, which consisted of rice fields and low-lying farm buildings.  Even though I’m a city person, I felt joy at being in the country.

In Hashimoto, I Skyped with Keiko and What’sApp’d with Lynn, who was on the train to Tokyo.  I fortified myself with a vending machine iced café au lait.  I was not drinking water or stopping for lunch because I didn’t know how tight the connections would be.

Some westerners walked by and greeted me with “How ya goin?”  I grinned to myself; I knew they were Aussies because that’s what Aussies say.

That reminds me.  My Aussie friend Heidi just sent these photos.

The first one was taken in July, Australia’s winter, on her parents’ farm.  It must have been about the same time I was on my way to Koyasan on the mildly air-conditioned train.  The second snap is a recent one of Eric Beethoven, which is what they’ve named the echidna who comes to drink from puddles in their driveway.

I find myself daydreaming about Australia.  I loved it.  I have not had similar feelings about Japan.  I think that’s because Heidi made my month in Australia so easy.  The one time I was left to my own devices, my passport disappeared.  But the police found, it so everything turned out okay in the end.

On Fire

I just returned to my room from a fire ceremony.  I think that’s what you would call it.  No one at the monastery in Koyasan where I am staying mentioned it; I heard about it from an Aussie couple who had the room next to mine.

When I went to the monastery website to see if I could find anything, I discovered that it is only in Japanese.  Here is what Google translate tells me about the fire thingy:

Eikan Hou was the eighteenth fellow of Shinto secular practice continuing from the Muromachi era, and the ruler of the country of Satsuma. It is answered.

In addition, the Shingon sect highest secret law “Yaki eight thousand sheets Goma” is trained more than a hundred times, and the enormous legal power is widely known inside and outside the country.

In December 1965, she was admitted to Shinshu Kotobuki, the slogan, and was promoted to the rank of Amida. The following year, he trained the secret law “One Million Pieces Goma Line” which could not be done by anyone in the history of the esoteric religion for 100 days. 

The line of the extraordinary death of roasting 10,000 milk trees and 3 thousand sheets of gargogi on a daily basis was made impossible.

Now, the Ebisu method holder has been praised in many fields as a great-fall outpost.

Perfectly clear, right?

This monastery is obviously doing well financially. They’ve constructed two new shrines on their grounds.  It must have cost a fortune for the highly-skilled woodworkers alone.

I assumed they weren’t finished yet, but my Aussie friends informed me that the fire ceremony took place inside.

Rain was slicing down in sheets as I worked my way around the veranda.  The buildings smelled like newly-hewn cedar, which they were.   I approached a sleek sliding door with a touch-controlled entry, and a man about my age sitting cross-legged on the floor inside waved me in.  I couldn’t very well say no.  Whoosh….inside, the new tatami mats smelled like hay.  Probably because that’s what they’re made of.

A friendly woman, perhaps the man’s wife, smiled and waved me over to a low chair near the front of the enormous prayer hall.  The hall looked like every other inner shrine I have seen in the last three weeks, except that everything was shiny and new.

Also, there was a 10-foot-high scary Buddha of fire.  This being an inner shrine, I assumed photos were not allowed.  Here’s an image of a similar Buddha I found online.

The new Buddha’s eyes were made of some shiny material that made them look like real eyes. It was 10 to one o’clock and although I was ready to fall over from exhaustion (and a very large bowl of noodles I’d had for lunch), I thought, “I can do this. I can stay awake for half an hour.”

I was the only person in the hall besides the kindly couple.  The chair was maybe one foot high and had a back that rose six inches.  At first, I was so grateful that they didn’t expect me to sit on the floor. I sat up straight, closed my eyes, and listened to the rain.  A rain meditation!  That’s what I was doing.  A profound question arose in my mind: Would I have time to stop at Uniqlo in Tokyo tomorrow to pick up a couple pairs of pants before I headed to my Air BnB?  There were more deep ponderings: Did I have the correct bus fare to get out of Koyasan?  How did they clean these tatami mats—did they vacuum them?  Would I have time for a nap before dinner?

I felt my mind go numb and my head droop toward my chest.  I jerked it up just in time to see a tall, beefy monk settle down on the altar and proceed to build a roaring bonfire. I mean it—a four-foot-high raging fire that threw sparks everywhere as the monk cast pine needles and incense into it while he chanted.

He had my attention. I didn’t notice almost two hours pass until I had to heave my creaky bones off the chair.  That was meditation.

Meditations on Buddhism

I made it to the morning meditation, mainly because I was worried about not making it to the morning meditation, and so I couldn’t sleep.  Well, I only slept about two and a half hours because my legs were going berserk, but if that helped get me to the meditation, so be it.

Those of you who have been reading for a long time know that I am a Jewish Atheist Pagan, or JAP.  That’s better than the other thing that JAP stands for.  No, not Japanese—Jewish American Princess.

I don’t know much about Buddhism except that it began in India with the enlightenment of a monk named Siddhārtha Gautamaand and it spread across Asia.

As I write this in my room in the mountaintop monastery, the weird music they play at 6am, 5pm, and 9pm just started.  It sounds like the beginning of the Dr. Who theme song, then turns into a chime-y tune that I cringe in fear is shaping up to be “We Shall Overcome,” but then it fades into nothingness after a minute.

Each of the 52 monasteries in Koyasan, a tiny mountain town, has its own idiosyncratic brand of bells, gongs, chimes, chants, and other noises issuing through the air at all times of night and day.

Back to Buddha.  There many different representations of the Buddha, and bodhisattvas, who from my understanding are kind of understudies to the Buddha.  Is there only one Buddha? Good question.  I think there is only one and there are also thousands.  No one painted a picture of the original Buddha back in 4th Century Nepal.  This makes it okay to depict him in many different races and forms.  There must be hundreds of different strains of Buddhism.  I knew that Zen was a Japanese form, but as I’ve moved around Japan I’ve encountered dozens of others, mostly based on the teachings of some Buddhist master or other.

Buddha’s teachings are known as dharma and sutras are religious teachings.  He highlighted the virtues of wisdom, kindness, patience, generosity, and compassion.  The five main precepts of Buddhism, which are suggestions and not laws, are to refrain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and intoxication.  Well, I’ve never killed anyone!

As in many faiths, adherents practice meditation, and that can take many forms—silent, chanting, walking, using a mantra or symbol, etc.

In Japan, about 30% of the population is Buddhist and only three percent are Shinto, which is a Japanese indigenous religion. These faiths overlap and intersect.  Hinduism is also mixed in there.  Unlike with Christianity, none of the three seeks to stamp out the others.

Japan has a temple (Shinto) or shrine (Buddhist) around every corner.  Some are enormous, like Todaji Temple in Nara, which is the largest wooden building in the world and houses a 15-meter-high Buddha.

Others are obscure, like this tiny one I stumbled upon in Tokyo, dedicated to dogs.

At most temples or shrines, I have encountered people bowing, clapping, lighting incense or candles, ringing bells, or listening to monks chanting sutras.

Inside each shrine is … wait for it … an inner shrine.  In most cases these are surrounded by signs asking people not to take photos.  Here’s one that didn’t have any prohibitions.

The inner shrine at the monastery is much like this.  I made the faux pas of wearing my yukata, or dressing gown, to the meditation, and being told, “Yukata, no!”  I had read an etiquette book I bought, twice, and still got it wrong.

I ran up to my room to change and rejoined the group.  About eight guests were observing as two monks intoned (presumably) sutras, punctuated by drums, gongs, and bells.  One had a beautiful timbre to his voice, and the two chanted in harmony.  I have no idea what they were singing, but it was magical, surrounded by dragons, lanterns, candles, incense, lotus flowers and orchids, tapestries, and thousands of intricately decorated boxes.

The jury is still out on my phone but I am taking its darkness as the digital detox I have long discussed but never had the will power to carry out.  Maybe Buddha had a hand in it.

Konichiwa from Koyasan

It’s 11:30pm and I will not be going to sleep any time soon.

I’m writing from Shojoshin-in monastery in Koyasan, Japan.  There are a couple things keeping me awake.

  • Whoever invented futons should be forced to sleep on one for the rest of his life.  I piled six on top of each other and all they do is sag into the center so that my head and feet are elevated and my spine is bowed downward onto the hard floor.
  • Restless Legs. After going through hell to wean myself off my RLS prescription, I used my emergency stash of pills while Lynn was with me so I wouldn’t drive her crazy with my pacing, kicking, and thrashing around all night. Now I have one pill left which I will try to save for my flight home, and I am going through mini withdrawal again.
  • My phone—I dropped it into a toilet! It’s dead!  There’s a chance it may be okay if I refrain from touching it for 24-48 hours and no one sends me a text or any kind of message.

But …

  • I don’t know what time it is unless I turn on my laptop, and I don’t have an alarm! Meditation starts at 6:30, followed by breakfast at 7:30.  There is a note on the info sheet about the monastery that says “Bell rings before 10 minutes.”  Ten minutes before what?  If it’s for morning meditation, will I hear it if I’m in the deep slumber I usually get for an hour or two after being an RLS puppet all night?

So many thoughts.  I don’t usually write at night but maybe if I get this out of my system, I will be able to settle my mind, if not my legs.

Koyasan is the most amazing place I have ever been.  That’s what I was thinking as I wandered through the ancient mausoleum that is where the 9th Century monk Kobo Daishi is meant to be in a state of permanent, deep meditation, praying for the wellbeing of all people. His mausoleum and the thousands of graves and shrines that surround it are in a forest of ancient cedar trees.  This was right before I dropped my phone in the toilet.  I will show you photos if my phone revives.

It took some doing to get here.  This morning I bade farewell to Lynn after another great travel time together of 10 days in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Nara. Much more on that later.

We took a shuttle from our hotel to the train station, where we had breakfast and then Lynn headed back to Tokyo and off to Scotland.  I took the Wakayama train to Hashimoto, where I transferred to the Nankai Koya line to Gokurakubashi.  Wonderful names.

The second train ride was very scenic, winding up, up, up through the mountains and stopping in tiny towns which didn’t appear to have road access.  Next it was on to a cable car which rose what seemed like a thousand feet up the mountain, followed by a 20-minute bus ride.

I was checked in by a monk who swiped my credit card, then hoiked my luggage into a dumb waiter to take it to the second floor.  He pointed out the shared toilets and baths and the meditation hall as he led me to my room.  It’s a traditional Japanese room, which means super uncomfortable for westerners like me who aren’t accustomed to sitting or sleeping on the floor.  But I have a view of a beautiful garden with mountain peaks in the background.  The sound of a brook, and frogs and birds, is in the background.  The monastery serves guests breakfast and dinner and the dinner was out of this world.

I could hear an Australian guy in the next room asking for a chair at dinner.  He was given one.  I will try to hold out and sit on a cushion to eat my meals but I don’t know if my hips can stand sitting on the floor for three days.

That’s about it for now.  Wish me luck with my phone.