Koyasan, one of Japan’s most sacred places

You don’t just visit Koyasan, you have to deserve it! From Kyoto it’s a 3-hour ride only but we took 7 different transportation means to get there, the last one being a cable car that takes you all the way up to Mount Koya, at around 1,000m altitude.

Still, nothing could have stopped us from experiencing life in a Buddhist temple. We stayed at Rengejoin, which is one of the first of 117 temples spread across Koyasan. I’ll offer here an honest account of our short stay in Koyasan, as what I’ve read on other people’s blogs was quite useful to help use prepare this part of our journey.

We arrived a bit early to Rengejoin and our room wasn’t ready so we spent some time exploring the temple. It’s a 900-year old temple, regularly renovated and the old part is beautiful. With its fortified and thick blue doors, the main building looks a bit like Sri Lankan temples. It could be that this is where monks keep their treasures. I wasn’t wrong as I later discovered that all their Buddhist scriptures are stored in that part of the temple.

We took a bus to the graveyard and tomb of Kobo Daishi, the founder of the sect to which most of the temples in Koyasan belong. I loved the graveyard. Mostly old tombs, some clearly abandoned, hidden amidst a forest of cryptomeria japonica, some enormous, others with a single trunk which then divides into three, all this contributes to an eerie atmosphere but not one that makes you feel bad. You can clearly sense this is a special place. It’s the largest graveyard in Japan and welcomes hundreds of pilgrims every day. The temples in it are nice but nothing special really, compared to Tokyo and Kyoto.

After the graveyard and temple visit, we headed back to our temple where we attended a meditation with the monks for 40 minutes. The head monk first told us a story about esoteric buddhism and then told the story in Japanese, by which time all the gaijin (foreigners) were ushered out of the prayer room and into the dining area. A traditional vegetarian temple dinner was served to us and the other foreigners (we all shared a room while Japanese people shared another room) with over 12 dishes. It was absolutely delicious!

At around 7pm we were invited to relax in the hot bath that was prepared for us, men on one side and women on another side of the corridor. By that time our room had been changed and two futons had appeared, together with a set consisting of a kimono, a haori (jacket), an obi (belt) and a toothbrush with toothpaste. I took my set and went into the hot bath, where for a long moment I was the only gaijin. Never mind – it was not my first onsen, so I didn’t feel shy 🙂 

I dressed up for the night with my kimono and haori, and headed back to our traditional room with a view over the zen garden. Lights turned off early as the next day we were kindly invited to wake up at 5:30am to attend the chanting ceremony of the monks at 6am.

Which we did and it was interesting to observe. I even poured some incense in a large bowl at the request of a monk, but then the smell and smoke were so strong that I started coughing and had to go out for a couple of minutes.

We spent a couple more hours in our room relaxing and reading because it was raining cats and dogs outside so couldn’t really go out for another hike.

My general feedback from this experience is that it’s worth it, even if it cost us 250 EUR for two. One thing that did strike me in a negative way though is that the monks aren’t like monks we meet in countries practicing Theravada buddhism (South Asia, Southeast Asia). They are allowed to have sex, eat meat and drink sake, although they should only do so rarely. They also treated us foreigners differently from the Japanese guests, which I didn’t like, giving them a tour of the temple and not us. If you are meditating about ego, about suffering and on Buddha’s teachings, it shouldn’t really matter whether I’m Japanese or French or whatever. I didn’t find the monks inspiring, they didn’t smile kindly at us and couldn’t care less about who we were, where we came from and so on.

I’d be curious to hear about other people’s experience of temple life in Koyasan. Maybe we just picked the wrong temple?

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