The Charm of Koyasan, The Sacred City of Japan

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A GLIMPSE OF KOYASAN

Koyasan, meaning Mount Koya in Japanese, is situated in Wakayama Prefecture in the east side of Osaka. The first person to reside in Koyasan was Kukai, later known as Kobo Daishi, who found and spread Shingon Buddhism.

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koyasan

Since then, Koyasan has developed to be the central of Buddhism activities and one of the most religious cities in Japan. There are monasteries, universities providing Shigon Buddhism major and 117 temples where religious ceremonies are held for the last 1200 years. In the mid 20th century, the town situated 900 meters above sea level started to open itself to the outside world. International tourists begin to notice its beauty, but it has never been more popular after UNESCO inaugurates Koyasan as the World Heritage Site in 2014.


NIGHT AT THE CEMETERY

As soon as I arrived in Koyasan, I hurriedly registered Okunoin cemetery night tour, one of the most popular attractions in town.

Okunoin is the largest Buddhist cemetery in Japan with 2 kilometers wide, the last resting place of notable monks, prominent people in feudalism period and tycoons, such as Hitachi family. Unlike other cemeteries, Okunoin allows non-Buddhist people to be buried there regardless their nationalities, race, education and social status, as long as they believe in Kobo Daishi’s philosophy.

FYI, you can’t book the night tour in advance and the only way to do it is to write your name in the guest book in front of Ekoin Temple an hour before it starts. Fortunately, Ekoin Temple is just a stone’s throw away from Kumagaiji Temple. Well, I think I was destined to join the tour from the start. By spending 1500 Yen ($14) per person, the guided tour is presented by a monk from Ekoin Temple, not an ordinary licensed tour guide.

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Okunoin

There were 20 excited participants from various nationalities, who joined the tour starting at 7 pm, when I was the only Indonesian on that day. The final destination of the tour was the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi, who is believed to do an eternal meditation after more than 1000 years and not dead like any other human beings.

Not far from the mausoleum, there’s Gokusho Offering Hall or the cemetery’s kitchen, where monks prepare breakfast and lunch to be delivered to Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum every single day at 6 am and 10.30 am. Apparently, there’s no dinner on the schedule.

For some people, strolling around a cemetery at night is a creepy experience. I admit, there are some scary urban legend in Okunoin. For instance, if you don’t see your own reflection while mirroring on the water surface of the well, it implies that you will face your own death within 2 years. Kakubanzaka steps are something you need to worry about. Rumor has it that if you fall on the step, you will die within 3 years.

torii gates in Okunoin

Not only did I get scary stories from the night tour, but also interesting facts elevating my knowledge about Japanese culture and belief. The appearance of Torii gates as part of the tombstone in Okunoin indicates the mixed practice of Shinto, the original Japanese religion, and Buddhism applied in daily lives, including religious ceremonies. For instance, birth and wedding ceremonies are executed in Shinto tradition because Shinto celebrates the early stage of life. On the other hand, death ceremonies use Buddhist tradition because Shinto doesn’t have death related ceremonies.

Instead of being scared, I had a better concentration on night tour because of the silent surroundings and not many people passing by who may create distractions. Let’s say it’s like watching a movie in the dark at the cinema, where everyone in the room stays focus on what the big screen is showing.

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one of the statues in Okunoin

Moreover, the monk was good at explaining the principle of Shingon Buddhism teaching in relation to the symbolism and tradition applied at the cemetery. Simultaneously, he had a great sense of humor that could break the ice and entertained all of us. To be honest, the story of Okunoin lasts longer in my head than anything else.

Next morning, I returned to Okunoin to embrace the beauty of over 200,000 beautifully crafted tombstones and sculpture. Everything looks so clear in broad day light and I enjoyed capturing magnificent views before me with my camera. I wouldn’t ruin my day by getting to know if I can see my own reflection from the water surface of the well. Luckily, I didn’t manage to find the well since I lost the orientation when the monk showed the exact location the night before. Apart from that, I tried to be careful not to fall from kakubanzaka steps and it wasn’t the hardest thing to do.

TEMPLE STAY

the garden in Kumagaiji temple

For once in a life time, I recommend you to try shukubo, or temple stay, in the beautiful town whose more than half of its inhabitants are monks. It has 54 temples, out of 117 in total, offering accommodation for tourists. You can get the room easily from Agoda and Booking.com. The good news is that the temples mentioned on both sites usually have some staffs, if not all, who can speak English pretty well. The rate starts from 7000 Yen to above 2000 Yen ($64 to $182) per night.

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Kumagaiji Temple


Before fantasizing too much about temple stay, let me get this straight. Despite being under one roof with the monks, dining room and bedroom for tourists are separated from those of monks. But anyways, I still could feel the spiritual atmosphere inside.


The morning after, I got a chance to participate in morning ceremony to pray for ancestors and fire ceremony, or homa, for self spiritual and psychological cleansing. Nobody is obligated to take part of the ceremonies, except the monks for sure, but you’ll miss the ultimate experience of staying at an ancient temple. In fire ceremony, I received a wooden ice cream stick lookalike to write some wishes and prayers, that would be burned inside the large pan on the altar to make them come true.

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fire ceremony

To take part of the traditional rituals is an unforgettable travel experience as I felt more engaged than just being a spectator. For non-early risers, it’s better not to stay late because the ceremonies start at 6 am.

Apart from ceremonies, there are other interesting things to do inside the temple suppose you can’t get enough with cultural and religious activities, from learning to paint on a silk, calligraphy, to meditation, that cost from 500 Yen to 1000 Yen ($5 to $9). Bathing in a hot tub or onsen is worth to try as well and free of charge.


SHOJIN RYORI, JAPANESE MONKS’ VEGETARIAN DISH

Spending overnight at the temple will not be complete without tasting the monks’ daily food. All monks in Koyasan are vegetarian and the food they eat is shojin ryori, Japanese monks’ vegetarian dish since 13th century. You can find it in restaurants in downtown and temples. Since I was too late to book a dinner in Kumagaiji temple and most restaurants were closed after 6 pm, I only got a chance to taste shojin ryori for breakfast after the ceremonies. Better late than never.

Unlike other vegetarian dishes I know, shojin ryori has a profound philosophy behind it. Basically, the main ingredients of shojin ryori must have 5 colors, such as red, yellow, green, black and white, and 5 flavors, from sweet, sour, bitter, salty to savory because the balance between color and taste equals to the balance of daily nutrition. Its not allowed to use strong flavored spices like garlic and onion in its cooking process.

shojin ryori

Kumagaiji Temple served sautéed okra in sesame oil, radish and julienne cut carrot, miso soup, as well as seaweed, plum and tofu fritters as side dishes with rice (gosh, I truly miss the stickiness of Japanese rice!). The use of soy sauce and sesame oil themselves can perform mouthwatering taste despite the absence of garlic and onion. They both enhance the freshness and juiciness of the veggies. There’s no doubt that fresh ingredients are responsible for achieving great taste in the Japanese monk style dish.

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dining room in Kumagaii Temple

One of the reasons why I decided to book a temple stay at Kumagaiji is the visitors’ positive reviews about the food. And now I can guarantee that they are honest reviews by experience. I admit, the rice portion was quite big for breakfast, but I was happy for that. Eating veggies was also filling for my tummy without feeling bloated. Furthermore, I felt more strength, power to continue a long walk around the town and wasn’t get hungry so quickly.

I’ve learned some lessons from eating shojin ryori. The way to enjoy vegetarian dish doesn’t always need strong spices and lots of garlic. I didn’t even see imitation meat that I often find in Chinese and Western food and that was okay because I didn’t miss it that much, surprisingly. Shojin ryori proves that Japanese food has more variety than just sushi, sashimi and ramen. Therefore it elevates my culinary experience around the globe.

BEYOND EXPECTATION

In a nutshell, I enjoyed every second of my visit to the town having merely 7000 inhabitants. It looks very enchanting with rows of beautiful and well-treated temples, shady trees along the way and mountain breeze that are truly refreshing for my body and soul. Nonetheless, what makes Koyasan impressive is the intense religious atmosphere is still in line with the town’s openness to foreigners.

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an empty street in Koyasan

Not to mention the non-mainstream activities that enable me to broaden my horizon about local culture, from exploring a cemetery at night, staying in a Buddhist temple, attending religious ceremonies to eating a monk-style vegetarian dish. Not all cities in Japan offer these unusual itineraries and I’m so glad that I chose Koyasan in my second visit to the country.

HOW TO GET THERE

The best way to Koyasan is by train departing from Osaka and it takes 90 minutes to the sacred town. Fear not, travelling by train in Japan is very comfortable, relatively easy and the instructions at the station is very clear. From Namba or Shin-Imamiya station, take Nankai Koya Lines to Gokurakubashi station, then take a 5 minute cable car ride to Koyasan station. From Koyasan station, you will arrive in downtown Koyasan within 10 minutes by bus.

Nonetheless, I started my journey from Wakayama City since it was the first city I visited before Koyasan. It was doable as well, but I don’t suggest you to do that. It takes at least about 30 minutes longer because you have to get off in Hashimoto station and transfer to Nankai Koya Line. Anyways, you’ll find also Hashimoto station on the way from Osaka, but you can sit back and relax without getting off there because the train goes directly to Gokurakubashi station.

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cable car

Last but not least, Koyasan World Heritage ticket is a must-have for anyone who wants to go to Koyasan. It’s a two-day ticket valid for a round trip from Namba or Shin Imamiya to Koyasan, unlimited bus trips in downtown Koyasan and discount vouchers to places of interests, from museums to temples. You can get this ticket in several main stations, such as Namba, Shin-Imamiya and Hashimoto for 2860 Yen ($26).

So, are you ready to explore the sacred city of Japan, stay with the monks, be a vegetarian and test your guts to have some adventure at night at the cemetery?

4 thoughts on “The Charm of Koyasan, The Sacred City of Japan

  1. Its very interesting stories, well written, opening something that I have not heard before.
    I wish I can witness those wonderful places

    Like

  2. Beyond expectation is exactly how I felt when visiting Koyasan. It’s so tranquil and beautiful. I regret that I didn’t take the cemetery tour. It sounds so interesting (and scary) 🙂

    Like

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