A good scent from a sacred mountain

by Kenny Mah

The journey up the mountain must have been a hard one for pilgrims on foot. For centuries, millions of devotees of Shingon-Buddhism have been trekking up the venerated Koyasan (Mount Koya) to get away from the secular world and live alongside monks at the secluded temples here. At over 3,000 feet above sea level, they are not likely to be disturbed at their refuge.

We aren’t pilgrims but weary of the bright lights and incessant noise of the city, we decide a sleepover at a 400-year-old temple might just be the perfect getaway.

Cedar skyline, Koyasan

Of course, we didn’t account for a summer typhoon hitting the Kii Peninsula with Koyasan rather ominously located at its centre. Is our trip over before we had even begun?

Thankfully, we quickly learn that we can always count on the Japanese to be prompt and efficient in handling crises. Still it takes us the better part of a day to reach our destination: first a JR-train ride from Kyoto to Osaka, then the JR-loop line from Osaka to Shin-Omiya, followed by the private Nankai rail from Shin-Omiya to Hamatsu, where a shuttle bus takes us to the following station (the typhoon did manage to inflict some damage on part of the railway after all), then onward to Gokurakubashi. Here we take the cable-car up to the Koyasan bus station, then a bus into the Koyasan town centre.

The view that greets us during the long journey is well worth any inconvenience we might have faced. Imagine the silent ride through the dense cedar forest; slowly revealing over a hundred temples built in the Edo period, each one more majestic than the one before. Welcome to Koyasan.

Temple lodgings, Koyasan

Of the 123 Shingon-Buddhist temples remaining on Koyasan, there are 53 where visitors may seek temple lodgings (shukubo). An overnight stay at a temple is an experience like no other; guests may observe the monks go about their daily rituals and are invited to take part in some, if so they wish.

Our bus drops us off at Shojoshin-in, the last stop before the Okunoin terminal. Shojoshin-in is also one of the largest and oldest temples in Koyasan, and next to the entrance to the Okunoin cedar forest. Walking through the temple courtyard we are treated to a fine sample of a traditional Japanese garden. Trees like azaleas (tsutsuji), Japanese apricot (ume) and willow (yanagi) have been carefully planted according to the rules of landscaping or sakuteiki.

We are greeted at the arrival hall by a friendly, bespectacled Japanese monk who speaks perfect English. The young monk tells us there are only a few rules guests must abide by, mostly dealing with the strict mealtimes and evening curfew. We nod, promising to be on time for dinner later that evening. (Little does the good monk know that a real Malaysian would never miss a single meal!)

Walking in the cedar forest, Koyasan

After leaving the luggage in our room, we head straight to the ancient cedar forest next door. The giant trees here are hundreds of years old and tower over us easily, the thick weave of their branches casting eerie shadows on the stone path. On both sides of the path are sacred tombs and gravestones, over 200,000 of them. It’s as though we have stumbled upon Tolkien’s Lothlórien by way of Hayao Miyazaki.

Some of the stone idols on the tombs are adorned with red bibs; this is meant for Ojizō-sama, the guardian of lost children, especially those who die before their parents. The bibs (and other children’s items like toys) are left there by grieving parents so the bodhisattva may give their children special protection. These are the children of the cedar forest.

It’s a beautiful if sombre walk.

At the end of the path, pilgrims pay their respects at the mausoleum of Kōbō-Daishi, the monk who brought Buddhism to Japan from China in 805 A.D. This is the heart of Okunoin, regarded as the most sacred spot on the mountain. Most of the pilgrims, usually elderly Japanese, will pray at Torodo (the Hall of Lanterns) where more than 10,000 lanterns burn night and day. Some of these lanterns are rumoured to have remained lit for over a thousand years.

We walk away after offering our own prayers, leaving the heady scent of cedar and the silence of the forest behind us.

Children of the cedar forest, Koyasan

Back at the temple, it’s time for dinner. The monks at Shojoshin-in are master chefs in their own right, famed for their preparation of a vegetarian cuisine called shojin-ryori. No meat, fish, onion or garlic is used; instead the monks opt for the freshest seasonal produce.

The friendly young monk from earlier leads us to our own private dining room, past a small pond which is dotted with carefully cultivated outdoor bonsai plants. We are invited to sit on the tatami-covered floor, Japanese-style, with our dinner served on low tables before us. There is a small altar at the corner of the room decorated with a flower and a scroll.

We start with some of the clearest and naturally sweet miso soup we ever tasted; there are also simmered wild potatoes (yamo-imo) and vegetable tempura. Every red-and-black lacquer box has a new treat for us, from smooth konyaku (devil’s tongue jelly) to regional specialties like yuba (tofu skin) and koya-dofu (rehydrated freeze-dried tofu).

Who knew a meatless meal could taste so good? This is like no vegetarian food we ever had; not a single mock meat in sight. Healthy, delicious, delicately cooked and presented; it’s possibly the best dinner we have had in Japan, and we have had many. (Again, Malaysians never miss a meal if they can help it.)

Tea ceremony, Koyasan

The alarm clock goes off at 5:30am. We rise, not from our usual beds at home, but from comfortable futons rolled out on tatami mats. After our morning ablutions (a quick wash of our faces with icy cold water wakes us up good and proper), we pad softly to the main temple hall to join the monks in their dawn prayers (o-inori).

The monks are already there (they were probably up hours and hours ago), seated in their black-and-white robes when we arrive. We are the first but soon we are joined by other sleepy temple guests – two Japanese women, one elderly who sits on the benches provided, the other younger, perhaps her daughter, who rests on the floor with her legs tucked in under her; a tall Japanese man with his Caucasian girlfriend in tow (a guess on our part, since he had eyes only for her and not the monks); and an Italian family (a balding, portly man, his big-haired lady and his mama, naturally).

No one talks. The only sounds are the chanting of the sutras by the monks and the regular, rhythmic chime of cymbals. We have no idea what the chanting means, of course, but it does not matter. It’s very calming. The grey morning outside the meditation hall and the shadows within it are illuminated by the light of the candles reflecting off the golden lotus flowers. Sweet-smelling incense wafts from a burner. We feel at peace.

This is why we have come to Koyasan.

Offering prayers, Koyasan

After the meditation session, we return to the rooms where we had dinner the evening before and partake of breakfast; again it’s vegetarian fare and it’s as delicious as dinner was. Instead of the usual green tea, we have something more amber in colour and smokier in flavour. We learn later this is hōjicha, a special Japanese green tea that roasted over charcoal instead of steamed.

One final stop before leaving Koyasan: the stately Kongobuji Temple, originally constructed in 1593 and the largest temple on the mountain. We feel as though we’re walking through the passage of history as we move from room to room: First the Ohiroma Room with its beautiful gilded sliding doors (fusuma) decorated with cranes by the revered painter Kano Tanyu. Next are the Plum and Willow Rooms; the latter the scene of the ill-fated Toyotomi Hidetsugu’s ritual suicide (seppuku) as ordered by his uncle Hideyoshi, the temple founder.

We end up at the Banryutei Rock Garden, which, at 2,340 square metres, is the largest rock garden in Japan. The largest rocks used to represent a pair of dragons emerging from a sea of clouds are specially transported from Shikoku, the birthplace of Kōbō-Daishi. While it is not a traditional Zen garden, there is certainly a very Zen feeling about it – an ambience of peace and serenity.

We close our eyes and enjoy this moment, this sanctuary. We take our time to remember: the smoky notes of freshly brewed hōjicha; the tranquil fragrance of hundred-year-old cedar; the smell of incense while monks chant, welcoming another sunrise. Here memory is a good scent from a sacred mountain.

Zen rock garden, Koyasan

Kongobuji Temple
132 Koyasan, Koya-cho, Ito-gun, Wakayama Prefecture 648-0291, Japan. Tel: +81-736-56-2011. Open daily 8.30am to 5pm (entry until 4.30pm). Admission: ¥500 (RM20).

Okunoin Temple (site of the mausoleum of Kōbō-Daishi)
550 Koyasan, Koya-cho, Ito-gun, Wakayama Prefecture 648-0291, Japan. Open daily 6am to 5.30pm. Admission free.

Shojoshin-in (temple lodgings & monk’s vegetarian cuisine)
566 Koyasan, Koya-cho, Ito-gun, Wakayama Prefecture 648-0291, Japan. Tel: +81-736-56-2006. Morning ceremony 6am, breakfast 7am, dinner 5.30pm & curfew 9pm. Website: http://www.japaneseguesthouses.com/