Arriving at Koyasan
Kūkai, an 8th century Buddhist monk who founded an entire school of Buddhism, was also famous as a poet, artist and engineer. He had chosen Mount Koya as his mountain retreat from wordly affairs and later a center of his sect of Buddhism. It is said that he is still alive in his tomb in Mount Koya – meditating and waiting for the next Buddha. Only the heighest of monks are allowed to see him and they bring him food and clothes every day.
A small temple town has developped on Koyasan’s mountaintop, which is today the start and end point of an important Buddhist 88 temple pilgrimage and a secluded, beautiful place for visitors to experience. It is also one of the best places to get a taste of a monk’s lifestyle: eat vegeterian monk’s cuisine, attend morning prayers and stay overnight at a temple lodging (shukubu).
Getting to Koyasan required a combination of trains, cars and a cablecar. It was the first time I experienced an old train in Japan – you know, the noisy kind. One of the stations we stopped at along the way was obviously quite deserted – with a flux of perhaps a handful of passangers per hour. Still, it had a dedicated old man who was responsible for keeping it clean. The place was spotless, yet after every passing train he would sweep some dirt away. Watching him for half an hour – I felt the biggest gap between my Israeli culture and this Japanese phenomenon. This man strived for perfection, performing his duty with admirable dedication and honor, yet I couldn’t help but feel a life was being wasted away… How different must his inner monologue be from mine!
Arriving at sundown, I went straight for the temple where I would spend the night. I learned that the monks were very strict with their schedules: dinners are served at 18:00 sharp, breakfasts at 07:00, and prayers with the monks start even earlier at 06:00. The front door closes at 22:00, and no new visitors are accepted.
After an efficient reception by a pleasant monk I was led to my room, named ‘Momi’:
Upon dinner time, I was led to the dining hall, where guests were assigned spots on the floor:
God help me, I can’t say I had recognized anything that I’ve eaten that day (except for the rice), but reading later I’ve learnt about some monk’s cuisine specialties such as konnyaku (devils tongue jelly), yuba (tofu skin) and koyadofu (freeze dried tofu). That sounds about right.
During dinner I made friends with Wolf (pseudonym), a German fellow who was sitting next to me. It was strange talking in the quiet hall, knowing that everyone else could be listening in on our conversation, so after a while we retired to his room for some local beers and conversation. It was his 10th time in Japan – you could say he grew addicted to the place – and Koyasan was one of his favorite places.
He told me he had just picked up a girl in a coffee house nearby – the barmaid, and that given a choice of when and where to have their date, she chose “5am, at the cemetery”.
“What?” said I, “Are you sure she’s not messing with you?”
“Pretty sure, and Japanese don’t have that kind of humor.” he sipped his beer.
“But… at the graveyard? At 5am? What are you supposed to do there? It’s frickin’ cold, too!”
“Well, I did promise to teach her Salsa dancing…”
“Great – dancing in a graveyard. Classic first date.”
It turned out later that she did meet him, at 5am at the entrance to the graveyard. They walked and talked and danced and kissed at the end. Japanese girls are wonderful and different, and as a practicing pickup artist specializing in the Japanese brand of pickup (I know, right?), this guy had some stories to tell. I might write about it someday.
Final note: at breakfast, we arrived at the same eating hall. This time, we immediately noticed that our meal trays were put close together. Apparently the monks had noticed that we became friends, and joined our “tables”. Considering that we barely felt their presence, I found it to be incredibly observant and considerate. There is no hospitality like Japanese hospitality.
The temple and the cemetery, times 3
Later that night, Wolf took me a few blocks down the street, showing me some temples and getting us to the entrance of the cemetery.
“If you haven’t seen it, it’s a must!” He said, “This is the best place in Koyasan.”
Okunin’s cemetery is by far the largest in Japan, with over 200,000 tombstones lining the two kilometer long path. At the end of the path is a bridge, across which lies Kobo Daishi’s (aka Kūkai’s) mausoleum. Many people, including prominent monks and feudal lords, have had their tombstones erected here over the centuries, wishing to receive salvation by being close to Kobo Daishi in death.
We went in at a brisk pace and high on conversation and about an hour later we stepped out. As we emerged at the end of the trail, Wolf sized me up, then said: “No. This is wrong… I might have ruined the experience for you. We were talking too much, we didn’t cross the bridge to the temple at the end, you don’t look shaken at all… Maybe you should go in again, but without me to ruin the mood.”
It was nearing 10pm. My phone battery just died and I barely remembered the way back to the temple lodging. If I didn’t go back now, I’d have to find a way to get in through the back door later.
“Alright, I’m going in again.” I said, and thus the real trip began.
Please try to imagine 2 kilometers of this. There are tombstones everywhere, strange statues casting long shadows, and while the path ahead and behind is lit by flickering lanterns, it is impossible to see more than a few meters to the sides.
Now that I wasn’t taking part in a lively conversation, completely alone in this dark place of death, a touch of fear started creeping in. I could hear very clearly my own footsteps on the pavement and the sounds of nocturnal animals – seemingly very close and behind every tree. The air grew colder, the darkness firmer, as I started to contemplate the Japanese mythology of afterlife.
The fearful feeling intensified as I went further and further along. At some point I realized I must be somewhere near the middle – one kilometer of tombs separating me from the end, and another from the beginning. Were I to stumble upon a walking corpse or a wandering spirit, which is the best way to run?
Lost in existential thoughts, I pressed on and reached the bridge. The path ahead was closed during the night, but this one time I decided to step over the railing and peak. In the distance I could see a large temple, dimly lit, and a few buildings and statues in the square next to it. There were signs explicitly asking not to photograph the mausoleum, so the only shot I took of the area beyond the bridge was this:
Having seen enough, I started my way back.
Suddenly, about a third of the way into the forest, I heard the sound of a xylophone playing. It was a slow, sad melody coming from the depths of the forest. The experience was so bizarre and jarring that after a short moment of panic I started to laugh. What came out of my mouth was barely a croak. I stood there for an entire minute, daring myself to venture into the forest and locate the source, but before I could muster the courage it stopped, and never returned.
If you doubt me, I swear this is true. I heard the distinct sound of a xylophone in the middle of Koyasan’s cemetery at about 11pm – and I have some theories as to what might have been the source. One is based on what Wolf has told me earlier, about monthly ‘horror tours’ that were led here on nights with a full moon. Perhaps it was a scripted event, to scare the visitors. Perhaps not. I am content to leave this moment as one of the as-of-yet unresolved mysteries of my life, to be solved someday with the help of the Scooby-Doo gang.
The third lap in Okunin’s cemetery happened the next morning…