Koya: Where the Monk Meditates Forever

If Kyoto is the face of Japan, than Mt. Koya is its best kept secret.

Usually I share articles about Japanese history, folklore and other subjects related to my books on this website, but this month I've decided to do it a little differently. Recently I went to Japan with my brother for two weeks. I could write ten articles about this trip and still not tell evertything there is to tell. We tried to fit as much places and activities into those two weeks as we could. From Tokyo to Nagasaki (roughly 7 hours by bullet train), and then to Hiroshima, Okayama, etc.

Mount Koya

To keep this blog post legible, I'll focus on one specific place: Kōyasan. Kōyasan 高野山, or Mt. Koya, is home to many temples situated in a sort of mountain valley. My brother and I had come across an ad on Facebook and booked a stay at the Eko-in temple. It was one of the things we were most excited about. It promised to be a special experience. We would sleep in a traditional Japanese-style room and eat the same (vegetarian) dishes as the monks who lived there.

Eventually it was time. We had enjoyed a stay in Okayama and started our journey to the mountain. Until then we'd only travelled in the bullet train and the limited express trains. This time we switched from the bullet train to the limited express, and then to the local train, a "mountain train" (I've no idea what it's called, but the track basically climbed the mountain), and lastly a cableway. It felt as though each train moved further and further away from modern Japan (the term "modern" is of course debatable). The journey was an interesting experience in which both transportation and environment slowly changed.

Once we reached Koya, a bus took us to the temple, where we checked in. Our Japanese-style room consisted of the typical sliding doors and a floor covered by tatami mats. On the floor stood a low table with four pillows and a filled teapot.

A photo of the interior of our room in the Eko-in temple on Mt Koya

An afternoon meditation session

After a refreshing cup of green tea, we walked on our slippers (shoes in Japanese buildings are not done) to a large room for a meditation lesson. The floor was covered with pillows on which we sat down, crossing our not-so-flexible legs. The monk who taught the class, explained the temple's religion (Shingon Buddhism) and demonstrated proper meditation. I really wanted to clear my head, but unfortunately I failed to sit still (damned legs...) XD And yet I did feel a certain amount of rest, so that was nice.


After the class it was time for dinner. A monk came into the room to move the low table and arrange the small tables with food (a Japanese room like this is multifunctional, so a living room, diner, bedroom, etc. are all in the same space). When the monk retrieved our trays, we apologized for not finishing it all (we were too full...) Luckily he could laugh about it XD

Photo of the delicious food that was served at the Eko-in temple on Mt Koya

The night tour through Oku-no-in

Our bellies filled, we gathered with other guests at the entrance of the temple. It was time for the highlight of our stay: the night tour through the Oku-no-in 奥の院 cemetery. This is where my writer's fingers really started to tingle. Man, how I wanted to take out my notebook! (That's the first thing I did upon returning)

At the entrance of the Oku-no-in cemetery there was a bridge (if I remember correctly, there was a total of three bridges on route) and we had to bow down before crossing it. After all, the cemetery and the mausoleum, that stood at the end of the route, were holy places. The cemetery lay in a forest and the tombstones stood between trees alongside a stone path. Stone lanterns illuminated the path and were arranged on both sides. It looked magical!

The tombstones

Our guide - a monk, of course - started telling us about the place and said that everyone, no matter nationality or even religion, could be buried at Oku-no-in (it almost sounded like a sales talk). He pointed at a tombstone with the most common design, called gorintō 五輪塔. Gorin stands for the "five rings" and refers to a theory described in The Book Of Five Rings, in which the rings are "water", "earth", "fire", "wind" and "void" (fun fact: the makers of the Nickelodeon show "Avatar the Last Airbender" based their system of four elements on this book). These rings serve as the building blocks of the Universe; the tombstone thus symbolizes the return of the body to the Universe.

Cosmic sun Buddha

Furthermore, our guide told us about the lanterns along the path. Each lantern had a sun carved out on one side and a halfmoon on the other. The sun represents the "Cosmic Sun Buddha" (in Japanese: Dainichi Nyorai 大日如来) and the half moon represents humans. Shingon monks believe that a pure spirit can be likened to the full moon. Humans can be illuminated by the sun (Buddha) to make their halfmoon spirit full.

The temple for sweating Jizo in the Oku-no-in cemetery on Mt Koya

A swift end for the clumsy

After this explanation we walked to the temple for "sweating Jizo", a boddhisatva that always sweats. You can let him carry your problems and suffering (so you won't be bothered by them as much) and because of that heavy weight, he sweats. Near that temple was also a well, about which our guide told us a funny legend. Usually, when you look down the well, you'll see your reflection. If you don't see it, however, you'll die within the next 3 years.

We continued the tour, climbing a set of stairs and going down again a little farther. As if climbing stairs isn't bad enough, our guide urged us not to slip. If you fall on those stairs, you'll also die within the next 3 years. That's somewhat disconcerting when you're inclined to clumsy stumbling... But! Luckily I managed to stay upright 🙂

The Oku-no-in stairs of misfortune on Mt Koya

The mausoleum

While everyone was very attentively minding their steps, we walked to the final stop of our tour: the mausoleum of Kōbō Daishi. We weren't allowed to take pictures there and had to throw water on one of the Buddha statues (instead of washing our own body) before we bowed and stepped onto the bridge to the mausoleum.

The terrain of the mausoleum contained several buildings, one of which was an impressing main building that had dozens of lanterns hanging from the roof. On each lantern the name and information of one of the deceased was written. Our guide led us around the building towards a closed off space behind it.

He told us about Kōbō Daishi, the founder of Koya and Shingon Buddhism. While he's presumed to have passed away in the 9th Century, the monks at Koya believe that he isn't actually dead. They claim that in reality he's perpetually meditating in a closed off room. Absolutely no one is allowed to enter the room, except for one person: the head monk. He alone may go inside once a year to change Kōbō Daishi's clothes and cut his hair.

After providing us with much information, our guide asked us to clasp our hands together in prayer and close our eyes. He turned to the meditating Kōbō Daishi and recited the popular Heart Sutra followed by a manta specifically for the worshipped monk. The way in which he sang (I think it was throat singing, but I'm not sure) was enchanting! I felt my mind clear (something my attempt at meditation failed to achieve). After this homage to Kōbō Daishi the tour was over and we returned to the temple to sleep in the futon (traditional Japanese beds) that had been laid down for us.

Photo of the interior of the main temple of Eko-in on Mt Koya

The morning prayer

The next morning we got up early to witness the morning prayer. In the main temple three monks sang sutra's and we (the guests) walked over to the front one by one to bow down and put a pinch of incense into a pot. After the service we all walked past a Buddha statue and bowed before it. Back in our room breakfast was ready. When our bellies were filled once more, we followed the rest to a separate building where the famous fire ritual would be held.

Photo of the fire ritual at Eko-in temple on Mt Koya

The fire ritual

For this ritual we'd been given the chance to buy a wooden stick and write a wish on it (for example, health and happiness for your family). During the ritual a monk built a great fire, in which he burned the sticks one by one while chanting the Acalanatha mantra, accompanied by Taiko drums. It was an overwhelming experience! I hadn't bought a stick myself, but I can imagine the comfort many attendants felt as they watched their wish get burned.

After the ritual we walked - on numb legs - to the doused fire one by one to take in the smoke (most guests "washed" themselves with it), because according to the monks that smoke contained the energy of Buddha. We then bowed to three more Buddha statues as a way to close the ceremony. Then we returned to our room and packed our things, ready to begin our journey to Kyoto.

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