After awhile it gets boring to just be a passive observer of a beautiful temple. It seems you only get to pass through and take a peek at the architecture. But what goes on inside those temples, what do rituals look like, what are all those objects used for? Well Koyasan is a good place to not only get a look, but to actually experience it first hand if you so desire.
Koyasan is a town perched high atop Mount Koya – land that was given to and built by Kukai (aka Kobo Daishi) the founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. He also wrote poetry, opened the first schools in Japan, wrote calligraphy, and was an engineer. Quite an accomplished, creative and inspiring man.
It is also a mission to get to Koyasan. Takes about 3.5 hours from Kyoto aboard various train lines, and finally a wild cable car ride that goes about 45 degrees vertically up the mountain, then a bus into town. Toward the end of the journey you pass through some beautiful mountain scenery. Highly suggest spending the night! We spent two nights and thought this felt comfortable.
The town of Koyasan on top of the mountain is quite small, dotted with a few shops selling religious supplies. Most places to stay are in the temples. But don’t be afraid, if you just want to be a tourist, the monks are very used to tourists coming through and religious activities are not mandatory. However the monks do abide by a strict schedule and if you stay at a temple they schedule meals at specific times and have various rules, so it is somewhat different than staying at a hotel.
On the other hand, if you are curious and want a deeper understanding of what happens at a temple and to experience what the monks do, you are more than welcome to participate in various ways depending on the offerings of your temple, you can inquire.
We stayed at Eko-in temple which was close to Okunoin cemetery, the main attraction of Koyasan. Eko-in temple was more friendly and beautiful than we anticipated. We stayed in a Japanese style room on futon and tatami. The temple has a small bath house, men and women separated.
The monks were very helpful, informative and friendly. Often the same monks practicing the ritual were also performing various duties in the temple such as bringing food, cleaning the rooms and the temple, etc. It was a beautiful temple with gardens, long wood passageways and various practice rooms. We loved being here. http://www.ekoin.jp/en/
Eko-in sometimes offers night walking tours of Okunoin cemetery if you are lucky and we were lucky to get to go on the tour with an English speaking monk named Nobu. It also happened to be on the night of a full moon which Nobu explained was a symbol of enlightenment according to poems by Kobo Daishi and the moon appears engraved onto stones lanterns throughout the cemetery in its various phases.
Kobo Daishi is also believed to not be deceased but to still be meditating in his mausoleum since the year 837 and the monks bring him food everyday. If you wander through the cemetery you will reach Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum at the end of the walk after the temple of lanterns.
I never thought I would ever say this about a cemetery, but this is one of the most beautiful and enchanting cemeteries I have ever seen. Highly suggest going around sunset, “magic hour” as they say, but you may want to bring an extra flashlight or a friend. It can very misty and mysterious at night.
Eko-in temple offers a beginner meditation class, free of charge for guests, small fee for others. In this class they will explain how to practice their Shingon style of Ajikan meditation. Great overview of their beginner method, explanation of symbols they meditate on and breathing techniques. Beginner class is a simple seated meditation just focusing on counting your breath in increments of 10, but advanced methods are mediating on the Sanskrit symbol “A” and root mantra “ahhhhh” sound. The full moon and lotus symbols are also involved.
They also offer a chance to try Shakyo – sutra copying of the Buddha’s “heart sutra” text which you can practice in your room. They will give you supplies, free of charge after an explanation of how to do it. Takes about an hour to complete. Very fun and meditative process. You will copy the sutra in kanji, but they show you the meaning in English in their room guidebook. You can keep it or donate it to the temple and they will burn it in the next morning’s Goma fire ceremony.
And the highlight of experiences at the temple is to take part in their early morning service and Goma fire ceremony. At the main temple the monks chant, while guests can offer incense and prayers. Afterwards everyone walks out to a smaller structure where everyone gets closer together as a monk slowly starts a ritual to build a fire. Incense, wood and wooden sticks with prayers are offered to start the fire. Another monk beats a taiko drum and chants during the process.
The flames can reach about 4 feet high at moments. You can just attend but if you want to take part, in your room they leave markers so you can write a personal prayer on the wood planks provided. You give them to the monks and with a small donation and they add it to the next fire ceremony. Highly recommend this experience.
…and the San mon gate at the beginning of town. Both a wonderful day of strolling.
But we just had to go back and check out Okunoin cemetery again in the day time to get a better view of the statues and to enter the temple of lanterns. Magical once again, but still think the best time is around sunset. If you get a full moon, then it’s a super bonus! Not only visually, but apparently spiritually.