Though it took nearly the whole day to get there, Brooke and I still arrived to our mountain inn on Mt. Koya with a few hours of daylight left. So after dinner we strolled down the street to check out the entrance to a massive, famous cemetery called Okunoin. We thought we might just stay for a minute as a preview for the next day, but were drawn in by the magnificent, ancient, moss-covered stone stupas. The place looks like another world – or perhaps the perfect setting for an Indiana Jones movie.
Ordinarily, a cemetery is not somewhere I would be at dusk or at night, but Okonoin for some reason feels peaceful rather than creepy. Perhaps because there were many other people there at night as well. We came across whole groups of school students with flashlights and papers in hand. They seemed to be on some sort of scavenger hunt, looking for certain graves or monuments. We passed a few other small groups of tourists along the pathways as well. We ended up walking the entire 2 Km of pathways through the cemetery to see the hall of lanterns at the end. It was beautiful at night. Sadly, I have no photos of the hall of lanterns to share, as there is a prominent sign requesting that you do not take pictures there. I do not know why, but I suspect it is thought that would disturb the “eternal meditation” of the monk Kukai who is interred in the adjacent mausoleum.
The next morning, we got up at 6am with all the other tourists at the inn to go see the monks do a buddhist prayer service at the inn’s temple. This consisted of two monks doing some very monotone chanting and singing in front of an altar, and a procession of tourists walking up to the altar to bow, kneel, and take a pinch of some substance and put it into the incense burner, rising, bowing again, and returning to their seat on the floor. After the prayer service, we all walked to another building for a fire ceremony. 50 or 60 of us all climbed into a tiny darkened room and kneeled in rows along the outer wall. In the middle sat an altar with a hole in the center and some sort of iron canopy. I ended up on one side directly next to a monk who chanted and beat a drum throughout the ceremony, while another monk in golden robes placed wooden sticks across the hole in the alter and doused them with an assortment of oils and other flammable offerings to create a tall flame. Though we were allowed to take pictures throughout the ceremony, we were asked not to use a flash. I had chosen some sort of “candle-light” setting from amongst the options on my camera, and thought it was working out great. That is, until I turned to my left to snap a “discreet” picture of the monk chanting and drumming directly next to me, and to my horror, saw his whole face light up red when I pushed the shutter button. He was unfazed, by it, and did not flinch or skip a chant, but I felt like a complete idiot and stereotypical obnoxious western tourist for not realizing the red-eye reduction light was still on.
After the ceremony, when the fire had reduced to smoldering embers, we were directed to walk past and behind the altar. Many of us westerners copied the Japanese visitors and fanned the trickle of smoke towards our heads. Smoke from incense at these altars is supposed to cleanse you of evil spirits. Behind the altar were several statues of buddhist deities, and in front of each, its own offering of vegetables and fruits.
Back in our room, we had a traditional vegetarian breakfast consisting of a wide assortment of various unidentifiable items. No eggs, no toast, no bacon (of course). Instead, there was a small bowl of a light broth, some cold cooked beans served in a slightly sweet sauce, a cube of pudding that may or may not have been tofu – with wasabi and soy sauce, some rice, some plain cold noodles, some pickles (including umeboshi – pickled plums – which are popular here, but legendary for their foulness. Really they were just extremely tart). There were also a few cooked vegetables and some seaweed. It was not a meal I would seek out again, (nor was the dinner), but it was interesting for the experience, and I adore the Japanese style of serving a whole sampling of tiny bits of different items instead of giving you giant piles of only a few things.
After breakfast, we headed back to the cemetery and spent hours there exploring all of the different graves, stupas, and mausoleums. It was still very peaceful there, although the mosquitoes were out and the tourist traffic increased ten-fold. At the end of the 2Km pathway, stands the mausoleum to Kukai, a buddhist monk who lived in the late 800’s, and who founded the town of Koyasan as a religious retreat and a place for monks to study. Kukai was also the founder of the Shingon sect of buddhism and responsible for spreading it widely around Japan. His followers believe he is not dead, but rather in eternal meditation. The reason Okono-in is such a massive cemetery, is that everyone wants to be memorialized there to be close to Kukai for when he reawakens. As such, only the truly wealthy or powerful can afford to be interred there now, and most of the new plots are put in by corporations to recognize their founders or exceptional employees.
After Okonoin, we checked out the various temples around the town of Koyasan. Koyasan is the type of small, sleepy town you would expect to see high up on a mountain, and there are many traditional ryokans and staffed by and housing monks who are at Koyasan to study buddhism. The monk who checked us in to our room, Nobu, was very friendly, and I asked him why he chose to become a monk. I don’t know what answer I expected, but he said that he didn’t know. He didn’t remember making any sort of decision about it – it just sort of happened. I suppose that’s how most people get into their careers, isn’t it?
We roamed around the various temples and shrines all day, stopping to rest at a small, adorable cafe in the afternoon. At Cafe du Lotus, we were the only patrons, and had the full attention of the owner, Jun. She was a cute little lady who had spent some time living outside Los Angeles visiting a daughter who now lives there. Though her English was broken, she was very chatty and told us how she goes to Paris to get her hair cut every 3-4 months, the difficulty of finding Japanese shoes in her size, and how hard it has been to find a Japanese architect who will build her an American style house. We all shares a good laugh when showed us her style clippings for the project, which were all of enormous French chateaus. Suddenly we understood why the Japanese architects were all telling her it would be “difficult.” We all took pictures and exchanged hugs, business cards, and email addresses, and Brooke and I went on our way – Jun having refused to let us pay for our coffees.
Tired, hot, and sweaty, with my ankles bruised from brand new hiking boots, Brooke and I called it a day and boarded the bus to start the 4+ hour journey to Kyoto.