I’m back in Kyoto now after visiting the spiritual center of Japan’s Buddhist doctrines, Koyasan (Mt. Koya). I spent the night in one of the 52 temples on Koyasan that offer lodging, and watched the resident monks perform their morning prayer service as well (more on that later).
If you’re wondering why I stayed the night in a Buddhist temple atop a mountain, I read on quite a few Japan-travel guides that one of the top experiences is lodging in one of the Koyasan temples. I figured where else am I going to get an opportunity like this, so thought why not.
Koyasan itself is roughly 800 meters above sea level, and is only reachable by an extremely steeply-angled cable car that runs from the train terminus below up to Koyasan in just a few minutes. Once at the top, it’s another 15 minutes by bus to the various temples and town center.
I checked in at my temple, called Shojoshin-in, in the late afternoon and was showed to my traditional Japanese room on the third floor.
I was told dinner would be served downstairs at 5:30 pm (sharp, since the monks have strict schedules to adhere to and have other tasks besides serving the temple guests). Obviously, the dinner was strictly vegetarian (called shoujin ryouri in Japanese), and had a mix of tofu, rice, miso soup, fruits, fried vegetables, and of course green tea.
It was actually pretty good and filled me up more than I expected. After eating, I headed outside (by now completely dark, even though it was only around 6:30 pm) to check out the nearby famous cemetery but immediately went back inside to put on some more layers because the temperature had dropped insanely quickly.
After I bundled up a bit, I went outside again and started walking through the Oku-no-in cemetery, a 2 km trail lined with around 200,000 graves, some a thousand years old.
I was the only one going through the cemetery at this time (it is open 24 hours though), and I’ve seen enough horror movies to know this was the part where some vengeful spirit pops out, so I won’t deny I was a little nervous for the first couple minutes.
After walking about halfway though I realized the cemetery was more serene than frightening. Very famous Buddhist priests and scholars were buried here, not to mention many imperial family members and other notable figures. It was a totally different experience seeing the various tombstones (some small stones, others giant obelisks), and it was a great walk to accompany my stay in a temple.
I returned to my temple after about an hour walking through the cemetery, and started getting ready for bed since the morning service was set for 7:00 am. Since the temple is very open, the hallways are really drafty at night, but once you enter your room (which is just via a sliding door), you instantly warm up due to the heater.
In what seemed like no time at all, the monks were ringing the gongs to signal the morning service. I went downstairs and joined the 10-or-so other guests (mostly Japanese) in the treasure room of the temple. Two monks begin their chanting, and for around 30 minutes they continued, taking very small breaths. Even though I couldn’t understand the archaic form of Japanese they were chanting in, it was still amazing to see their discipline and devotion. It was really cold in there (I was wearing around 5 layers), but both monks just had their robes on.
Pictures were unfortunately not allowed, but I got enough of the temple and surrounding autumn foliage to compensate.
I was in Koyasan less than 24 hours, but it was a surreal experience, even after all the countless temples I visited in Kyoto. Unlike the majority of temples across Japan though, those in Koyasan are considerably less extravagant, but make up for it with the calm simplicity in their surroundings. Everything is quiet, clean and free of city traffic, lights and crowds.
Anyway, I’m now in Kyoto for the next 3 days, so I am going to try and finish up what I wanted to see and do here. It’s been a great 10 days or so in this region of Japan (called Kansai), complete with polar opposites of sights: the touristy shrines in Kyoto, to the buzzing metropolis of Osaka, and finally to the secluded respite at Koyasan.