Mount Koya and the Monk Graveyard

We spent most of our time in the cemetery.  Early morning with wet moss glistening green, watching snails trail from grave to grave, and late night — waiting for ghosts to find us, or maybe for religion.  Because if we’re going to find either it may as well be in an 1000 year old town founded by monks, high in the mountains of Japan.

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Dating back to 814, Mount Koya was founded by the monk Kūkai, and since that time has transformed into the world headquarters of Shingon Buddhism.  Nestled in the mountainous Wakayama Prefecture, now over 100 temples fill the mossy landscape, almost half of which rent out rooms to pilgrims and tourists.  Our temple lodgings for the night would be a traditional ryokan-style room where we’d sleep on the tatami matted floor, and would dine on all-vegetarian cuisine brought to our room by one of the resident monks. Shoes off on the premises of course, so we’d left ours at the temple door and changed into slippers, which we took off to gain entrance to our room (wearing shoes on a tatami mat is the ultimate oh-no-no of Japan, above even blowing your nose in public or gesturing with chop sticks).

Darkness falls fast here.  Unlike the neon veil Tokyo and Kyoto are wrapped in, Koya doesn’t have bars or late-night restaurants; so the setting sun seems to provide an internal clock for all residents.  After finishing up a 5:30 dinner of eggplant, silk tofu, seaweed, fruit, and a steaming bowl of white rice all washed down with a pot of green tea, we hit up the oldest cemetery in Japan — which just happened to be across the street.

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Okunoin Cemetery is home to 200,000 graves, primarily monks’.  Wandering through a darkened cemetery has been the opening scene of dozens of C-Horror films, but being in Okunoin was calming rather than creepy.  A cobblestone pathway illuminates the tombs to either side, and as you pass by you can catch the smallest detail: a spider weaving a web in the crannies of a stone lantern, the patterns of light on ancient bark.  There’s too much to be in awe of to be afraid.

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Kūkai is hallowed here.  Since bringing a small religious sect into an otherwise uninhabited mountain region isn’t an easy feat he’s honored with a mausoleum in Okunoin filled with 10,000 ever-lit lanterns.  Kūkai isn’t buried in Okunoin itself though; his body lies in the eastern peak of Mount Koya.  Legend has it that when the tomb was opened centuries after his death he was found as if sleeping, his body not withered and his hair even a bit longer.  In this state he rests, not dead but in a state of eternal meditation, waiting for the future Buddha to arrive. Since the living need to eat he’s brought a ritual breakfast every morning at 6:00am prompt — not just by one monk but by a temple’s worth, who you can see in an orange-robed line, trodding across the cold stones.

The illuminated pathway leads to Gobyonohashi Bridge, past which is his mausoleum where no photos can be taken. “No photos” is a common rule inside temples and holy places in Japan, a rule I respected completely (I mean seriously, you’re going against the wishes of a millennium’s worth of monks for an Instagram like? You don’t need religion to not be an asshole on this).  Since there’s no photographic evidence of the mausoleum you’ll just have to trust me —it was otherworldly.  Though closed at night you can still peek through the cracks to see rows upon rows of orange lanterns, blazing away in the quietness.  The light slips out ever so slightly, causing the structure to glow, and when crossing the bridge you’re transfixed by what’s ahead.

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Back in our room I’m happy to turn in at 9:00pm.  There’s the lightest of rains outside playing me to sleep like a lullaby, which is fitting, since I’m swaddled up in a sleeping bag like a baby. Though I still sleep terribly when camping I fall asleep within minutes.

Here I’m not a curmudgeon at 6:00am, the time for prayer and a fire ritual.  I’m infinitely grateful for the opportunity our lodgings, Shukubo Koya-san Eko-in Temple,  offered us: inviting a bunch of tourists to prayer and fire ceremonies is a rare and intimate experience.  That being said, I was a bit distracted during our morning prayer ritual as I was busy watching the most awkward game of telephone ever.

When our groggy group was told that during the prayer we were to individually go up to the altar in the center of the room, grab ash from the burning incense, take said incense and cross our hands across our chest, like so (monk demonstrates), putting the incense into the flame, then bowing, all 20 of us saw something completely different.

This led to my not becoming totally entranced with the experience since my attention was focused on what the people in front of me did upon arriving at the altar.  I’m pretty sure everyone else was as distracted as I was because the incense process evolved slowly through the crowd, everyone playing off the person who had gone in front of them, some even adding their own flare.

Initially the process went pick up the incense, touch it to your forehead, then quickly put it down, which transformed into pick up the incense, take it to your nose and smell it  before dropping it into the flame (I was part of this group, am not proud), eventually people started smearing it on their foreheads like it was ash Wednesday, and a brave few went up to the flame, bowed, then gtfo’d.

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Fire comes next. Tatami slippers on our feet the group silently treks downstairs and outside (shoe change in between of course), and loads into a small temple with a pyre in the center.  As we settle in and admire our ornate and intimate surroundings a young monk kneels in the room’s center and begins chanting.  Chanting still, he lights pieces of wood with mantras written on them.  In the background a taiko drum starts to pound, whose pounding deepens and crescendos during the ritual.  Flames reach higher and higher and the chanting seems to grow louder and louder.  Minutes pass in seconds and just as quickly as it began, with flames reflecting in everyone’s eyes, the drums cease, the chanting stops, and the newfound silence seems louder than thunder.

The ritual is done to destroy negative energies.  And while I don’t feel profoundly changed I do spend the rest of the day wandering around in a bit of a daze, albeit a well spent one.  We meandered in our socks through Kongobuji Temple, filled with gilded rooms who have hosted visiting dignitaries (The Willow Room even witnessed the ritual suicide of young Toyotomi Hidetsugu) and whose three kettles can feed a party of 2000 when all in use.

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Deeper into the temple we happened upon an annex where a sermon was taking place. Worshippers squatted on the floor surrounding the priest, munching on rice cakes and sipping tea.  Surveying this for a moment we turned to avoid stepping into the room itself, and were immediately waylaid by a woman distributing tea and snacks.  She gestured to us, shoved a cup into our hands and motioned for us to enter.  Briefly horrified, we found that our newfound presence went unknown in the large room and were quickly relieved.  Sucking down the last drops of tea we noticed twenty-something westerner pushed through the door just as we were.  A camera dangled around his neck, cup in hand, confusion in his eyes.

Past the annex is Japan’s largest rock garden, whose stones represent two dragons rising from the clouds of Kyoto.  The sands surrounding the stones are immaculately groomed into patterns of circles and lines — I will never fully understand how this process works in the same way  I’ll never really understand gravity.

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One more time we pass through the cemetery.  Though it’s past 10:00 now everything still shines wet from the fog caught the evening before. Towards late afternoon it’ll burn off as the heat rises, drying the tombs of thousands, spirits waiting for a man not really dead  — to rise into a better world.

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