The DougBlog
"Et sans savoir pourquoi, disent toujours: Allons!" —Baudelaire

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Lost in Translation, Part 4: Koyasan (Mt. Koya)

Mount Koya is more commonly and affectionately known as “Koyasan” (adding -san to anything is an honorific). It is a mountaintop dotted by more than 100 monasteries, making it the world’s center of Shingon Buddhism, also known as Esoteric Buddhism. Koyasan was settled 1200 years ago by the priest Kūkai (who is known posthumously as Kōbō-Daishi—Japanese people get new names after they die!) There is no question that it is a mystical place, especially as it always seems shrouded in mist and a canopy of old-growth pines.

Although one can visit for a day, you also have the opportunity to spend a night in one of the monasteries, called a Shukubo. Most of them offer guestrooms run by the student monks, with spartan accommodations similar in style to a ryokan. The two main differences are that your meal—while no less lavish—is vegetarian, and you are awakened at 6AM to join the monks for their morning prayers (optional).

The only way to the top is via a number of old switchback cog railways. In this way you zig and zag and slowly meander up to the top through the forests and clouds.

Our one-night accommodation at the Kumagai-ji Monastery was as austere as any ryokan, and while our room was more spacious it was still quite spare. Here’s Karen drinking tea and reading up on the teachings of Buddha.

We looked out on a lovely garden.

The young monks were very cute as they struggled to communicate, occasionally (with some embarrassment) resorting to the crib sheets in their sleeves. We were welcomed with a gift of prayer beads and a talisman. Soon it was time for dinner, and our vegetarian feast was just that: a spectacular array that didn’t even make you miss having meat! It was somewhat like a kaiseki except instead of courses everything was served at once in an elaborate setup right in the room, on the floor.

It was quite cold and the buildings are not heated, but the monks gave us a space heater and put hot water bottles under our futons when they set them up. Here’s Karen with her usual look of dismay when people think we are a couple and put our futons together.

Sure enough, the next morning we were awakened early for prayers. There was a lot of monotone chanting and low gongs. Some visitors (presumably Buddhist) participated while we just watched. I found it haunting and hypnotic. Eventually we were quietly asked to leave because the next part of the service was only for Buddhists; instead we were taken to a smaller sanctuary where one of the young monks performed the Goma ritual of consecrated fire just for us. It is unique to Esoteric Buddhism and is said to be the most mystical and cognitively powerful ceremony performed.

While the monks chant mantra of Acala and beat drums, the fire is lit. Deities are invited to enter the fire to purify it. Sticks called gomaki are thrown onto the fire; these are pieces of wood on which visitors have written prayers or wishes. The chanting and the fire both escalate and then die out in unison. The purpose of the fire is to “burn away obstacles to enlightenment and negative karma, allowing us to purify our karma, transform negative emotions and energies, and sow the seeds of light, compassion, and wisdom.” Now I'm not usually a new-age kinda guy, but it was undeniably spiritual and transcendent.

Here's a little video of the two ceremonies.

After breakfast we headed out to visit a few other monasteries. The most important sight here is the Mausoleum of Kōbō-Daishi, founder of Shingon Buddhism. It is surrounded by Okunoin, the largest cemetery in Japan with more than 200,000 graves from ancient to modern. The older section is the most haunting, filled with moss-covered stones and carefully tended shrines. Among the graves are plenty of Jizō, small statues of a Buddhist god who is thought to bring relief to the tortured souls in the cemetery. Japanese often place hats, bibs, and other clothes on the statues to protect him from the elements. As I mentioned in my last post, he is commonly associated with children as their protector as well the protector of “never born children” (miscarriages, stillbirths, abortions) and travelers.

Photography is not allowed at the Mausoleum of Kōbō-Daishi himself. It is said that he is not dead, just meditating and will one day return. It is lit by thousands of lanterns that are said to have been burning constantly since his death more than 1,000 years ago.

Outside the monastery, worshipers begin their prayers by splashing water over each statue (Jizō Bosatsu) in a line, moving from right to left until they have soaked each one of them, The water comes from the Tamagawa river and is said to ease the souls of the deceased.

Here's a little video of the splashing of the Jizō Bosatsu.

After visiting the mausoleum, we exited through the more modern section of Okunoin, which is filled with some interesting graves. It is not uncommon for companies to erect shrines where their employees may be buried (because who doesn't want to be with their employer for all eternity?!) Some of these are rather unique: there’s a spaceship monument for an aeronautics company and a giant coffee cup for a coffee company. There’s even a monument that was built by a pesticide company to honor all of their "insect victims".

Next stop, the beautiful city of KyotoBUT BEFORE WE GO…A FEW PARTING SHOTS!

Toilets are an utterly fascinating topic in Japan. For the most part, most places have fancy electronic toilets. The seats are always heated and have built-in bidet features that come out on the push of a button to give your undercarriage a little “how’s your father”, usually with all kinds of settings to customize the strength and temperature of your bidet experience. And yes, some of them even play music or make artificial flushing noises at the push of a button that can be used to cover any unpleasant noises you might make while on the throne.

Of course, that’s anywhere in urban Japan. Once you get out into the countryside you often just get a hole in the ground. I guess it’s all or nothing.

And of course, a sign.

I enjoyed this dog dressed as Mozart.

You’ll also notice the man in the surgical mask…these are very popular in Japan. It is apparently a courtesy to wear one if you are sick so as not to spread your germs.

Next stop, KYOTO!


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