Temples! Shrines! Pagodas! More temples! More shrines! More pagodas!
From Kyoto I traveled to the holy mountain Koyasan. The trip up to the basin was definitely an important part of the experience: taking a slow, squeaking train up, up, up, through dense forest and tunnels. The last part uphill was too steep for the train, so we had to change to a cable car. The mountain town of Koyasan is ancient, very sacred, and filled with temples. Many of these also operate as ryokan (guesthouses), so I staid two nights in one of them. This can easily be described as a once in a lifetime experience. I was given slippers and a yukata to wear at my leisure around the temple, except to meals and prayers. My bedroom had no bed at first, but did have a low table and cushion set up for me on the tatami. Green tea and a sweet were waiting for me. The monk who checked me in opened the sliding window panels to let some air in, and came back to make a bed for me on the floor while I was having my dinner. This dinner consisted of 14 – 17 little bowls, cups and plates, all containing some different vegetarian Buddhist nutriments. Tofu, tempura, seaweed, soy sauce, pickles, rice, more green tea, and some fruit for dessert were all included. The elaborate meal took a long time for me to finish, especially as I was not accustomed to eating soup and soft tofu with chopsticks. I can proudly say I managed a lot better for breakfast and dinner the next day.
Here are some of the sights at Koyasan.
Possibly the most sacred and famous attraction in Koyasan is the Okunoin. This is a long road where pilgrims used to and still go to pay their respects. The long winding road is basically one long cemetery, with various statues and shrines alongside it. The road leads up to a huge lantern hall, which was originally built around two large lanterns which were donated by devout patrons in the 16th century. Nowadays it is still a custom to donate lanterns of various shapes and sizes, and so the hall is filled from top to bottom with them. Next to the original hall is an annex with more lanterns. Behind the lantern hall lies the most sacred spot of all, a wooden shrine where Kobo Daishi is said to remain in eternal meditation. Kobo Daishi is a learned, much respected monk who went to study Buddhism in China for two years and upon his return set up the holy community in Koyasan. He also managed to convince several warlords of his time not to attack the village, and some of these military men became devoted Buddhists themselves later on. The continued cultural/religious importance of this man in Japan cannot be underestimated. He is revered by many, and his legacy is still tangible in many parts of Japan. Rather than being dead, he is said to remain in deep meditation in his wooden shrine at Okunoin, to spread compassion and kindness to all suffering humans. Sometimes, it is said, he appears to pilgrims on the Okunoin.
All this holiness and I still wanted more. From Koyasan I took a train back down, and finally ended up in Nara. For any Alt-J fans reading this blog: yes, the very same Nara! This pretty little city draws visitors not only for its significant and impressive temples and shrines and history, but also because of the deer. Yes, deer. Before Buddhism became big in Japan, the locals in Nara believed that deer were messengers of the gods, and could not be killed. That is why today deer still live alongside humans here. They are cute, enjoy being fed deer cookies, and roam the streets at their leisure.