I first read about Mount Koya or Koyasan many years ago, from an article written by Pico Iyer for a travel magazine. Since then, I had always dreamed of one day visiting this heart of Shingon Buddhism in Japan. I wanted to see Okunoin -- the hauntingly beautiful graveyard in Mount Koya, stay in a centuries old temple, experience the peace and serenity of temple services and of course, savour shojin ryori -- the traditional vegan meal cooked by temple monks.
Finally, on a business trip to Osaka just a few weeks ago, I fulfilled this long held wish.
The trip to Mount Koya starts from the Nankai Namba station in Osaka. The ticket office and the train platforms are up on the second level.
The Namba area is home to malls, department stores, shopping streets and the Nankai Namba station can be pretty confusing with its maze of stores, hotels and eating places. There is a good tourist information centre on the ground floor that is very helpful with lots of free maps and brochures and where English is spoken quite fluently.
We bought the Koyasan Heritage Pass which is good for two days and includes rides on the train, the cable car and the buses that go around Koyasan. The Koyasan Limited Express is an
all-reserved-seat train and is the straightest and fastest way to Mount Koya -- just 80 minutes.
The end point for the Limited Express is Gokurabashi which is the entry point for Mount Koya. Other slower but cheaper trains drop you off a few stations before where you'll have to catch another train for Gokurabashi.
Colourful little buntings adorn the simple station and welcome us when we arrive.
Since it's the end point of the line, everyone gets off. I see a few foreigners along the mostly local crowd.
The cable car itself is an engineering marvel. It's built to conform to the slope of the mountain and thus, is at a steep slant. You climb the stairs to get to your seat and by the time we get on board, most of the seats are full -- so a lot of the passengers stand by the windows and enjoy the passing scenery.
It's a ten minute slow ride to the top of the mountain. We get off at a small antique looking station and before we do anything else, we check the schedule for the next day's train and get our seats.
These are the buses that will take you into town when you alight from the cable car.
There are three bus lines that cover Mount Koya. When you take the train and the cable car, you will need to take these buses which are the only ones that can use the road going from the station.
There is no walking allowed from the station into town. But, if you use your car to go up to Koyasan, you enter the town by another route.
It's a short 15 minute ride into Koyasan. I am completely captivated by the beauty of the surroundings. Mount Koya is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site and is very much protected and preserved from the encroachment of blatant commercialism. While there are are local souvenir stores and small restaurants and cafes, there are absolutely no branded convenience stores and fast food outlets.
Our bus drops us off a short 200 meters from Ekoin Temple, where we are billeted for the night.
Where did all the people go? It's a Saturday afternoon and even if the train and cable car were quite full, the rest of our co-passengers seem to have evaporated into thin air. We enjoy the peace and quiet as we walk towards the temple.
2014 is a special year for Koyasan -- it will mark the 1180th anniversary of Kobo Daishi's entrance into eternal meditation. Kobo Daishi is the founder of Shingon Buddhism which he established here in Mount Koya. These bright red banners along the roads greet the many pilgrims or henro who have started their pilgrimages in honour of this momentous event.
This is the entrance to Ekoin, the 1200 year old Buddhist temple that is now a skukubo or temple lodging. It is right by the road and just a few hundred meters from Okunoin, the most sacred site in Mount Koya and the largest graveyard in all of Japan.
While simple and austere, Ekoin's grounds exude a very calming air. There is a small rock garden and a pool with brightly coloured koi right as you enter the temple gate.
The temple has about 50 rooms for guests. Rooms are sprawled out throughout the temple grounds.
Surrender your shoes before you enter Ekoin. Slippers are provided for guests to use.
This is the small office at the front of the temple for the monks who are our hosts during our stay.
Ekoin has come into the modern era. Thankfully there is no wifi to disturb one's peace but for those who cannot not be connected to the outside world, there is a small room with computers and free internet for the shukubo's guests.
Ekoin's wooden floors have that patina of beautiful old wood. There are no guest rooms on this side where large rooms feature antique screen paintings.
This room has Ekoin's special treasures on display -- including a cross section of a centuries old cypress tree which dates back to the temple's early days.
These are fusuma or traditional paintings done on paper sliding doors. They are exquisite and feature scenes of Mount Koya -- notable is the massive cypress tree that dominates the painting.
I pass through this portion of the temple where the guest rooms look out on to this small pocket garden. Everything has that air of wabi sabi -- the Japanese principle of understated, modest and quiet beauty.
Note that all rooms are in the traditional Japanese style -- just shoji or sliding paper doors separate guests from what is outside.
Our room is on the second floor of the temple, at the end of another long corridor.
We don't just have one room -- we have two. One half is the sitting room and the other half will be transformed into our sleeping area later tonight. These are traditional Japanese style rooms -- no chairs, only tatami mats and thin cushions to sit on. The traditional tokonoma or alcove is at one end of the room. There is the usual scroll and vase that adorns it plus a slightly off-putting modern touch -- a small flat screen t.v. We never turn it on the whole time we are there.
The monk who takes us to our room gives us a task as the first thing we have to accomplish while in Ekoin. We are asked to trace and duplicate this entire sutra. It's extremely difficult -- particularly for someone like me who finds it hard to sit still at a repetitive task.
It takes me almost an hour to finish the sutra and towards the end, I actually find myself slowing down and taking more care in tracing the calligraphy. I am actually a bit sad when I complete the last "letter".
This completed sutra will have to be given back to the monks and will be burned as an offering when we leave.
Because Mount Koya has nearly 200 temples and over 50 of these are skukubos or temple lodgings,
the monks are also innkeepers and thus, are very much experienced in handling guests -- both local and foreign. A "rule" book in english and Japanese, is provided in each room that explains temple living and how one should act properly while staying in the skukubo.
There is even a section on how to wear a yukata or the Japanese casual, light kimono. As in a ryokan, an onsen and other traditional Japanese guest houses, yukata are always provided for the guests.
Naturally, the book includes a section on Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism and who established his headquarters on Mount Koya. Ekoin is a temple that was established almost 1200 years ago by Dosho, a direct disciple of Kobo Daishi and is one of the oldest temples in Mount Koya.
Our sliding paper windows let in the cool September breeze. While I had been told that Mount Koya is much colder than Osaka, the late afternoon sun is just enough to ward off the chill.
Lodging at Ekoin includes two temple meals -- dinner and breakfast for the next morning.
Dinner is served early, at 5:30 p.m. A monk carefully delivers our trays to the room, lays them out on the tatami floors and leaves just as quietly as he came in.
The first tray has a small serving of stewed assorted beans, pickles or tsukemono, a very light but delicious clear broth, a small block of sesame flavoured tofu (which is a Koyasan specialty) and a small plate of fresh vegetables and fruit such as pineapple, yam, daikon, wakame seaweed and my personal favorite -- slices of konnyaku, all served with a slightly tart sesame dipping sauce.
The more filling and substantive main tray has stewed mixed vegetables -- snow peas, rolled kelp, simmered tofu, and wheat gluten. There is a very delicious plate of vegetable tempura -- lightly battered pumpkin, laver seaweed, eggplant and a mild green pepper. The tempura refreshingly comes not with the usual soy based sauce but with a mild salted herb dip. These two dishes seem more than enough but there is still a generous bowl of fresh soba with mushrooms. For dessert, there are two slices of cold, crunchy, sweet Japanese pear.
Everything is vegan. And because this is shojin ryori or traditional Buddhist vegan cuisine, strong flavours such as onion, garlic and leeks are not present in the various dishes. And yet, I am able to grasp and enjoy the very essence and spirit of each ingredient. Each dish seems to be simply prepared yet complex in its appeal.
This bowl of perfectly cooked Japanese rice is meant for sharing. The bottle of Kirin beer, in a special autumn label, is meant just for me -- no sharing. I did not smuggle this beer into the room -- it was offered as part of the meal. This beer is my only concession to the "outside" world that seems so far away from Ekoin.
After dinner -- it's time to head to the Japanese baths. There are two separate hot baths -- one for men and one for women. The water in Ekoin's baths come from the waters from Mount Koya and are mineral rich, therapeutic and delightfully heated. The baths are open from 6 in the morning till 10 at night.
Since I get to the baths just before closing time, I am able to enjoy a much needed, long and solitary soak -- it helps remove all the tiredness and fatigue that I had been feeling for days.
The ever efficient monks have come to make up our beds while we were in the bath.
I am grateful for the thick futons as the evening has turned quite cold.
Here we are in our blue and white yukatas. The shorter plain blue coat is the outer garment which you wear when you come from the baths to go back to your room.
I sleep very comfortably throughout the night -- cozy and snug in my futon.
The next morning, we are up before 6 to catch the early prayers and services.
Ekoin's main temple is just outside the guest quarters and the view that it looks out on is just incredible. Towering cypresses crowd the mountainside standing guard over the many temples and centuries old buildings in Mount Koya.
This is the main temple where prayers and services are conducted. There seems to be just enough space for the 30 or so of us who have up gotten up early to attend. Everyone sits lotus style, on the floor.
The head monk and his assistants (who are very familiar faces as they have been the ones who have served us throughout the day) chant the sutras. While I do not understand a single word, their rhythmic chanting and the banging of gongs is soothing and helps me focus, keeping my mind free of all outside thoughts and clutter.
After the morning services, we are all led outside to a smaller temple for the Goma fire ritual. A monk presides over the sacred fire while another continues to chant the sutra and bang a gong. Smoke from the ever growing blaze has turned the ceiling black with soot and for a while, I wonder how it does not catch fire and turn the whole ceremony into a major conflagration.
This ritual is special to Shingon Buddhism and is meant as a powerful way for spiritual and psychological cleansing. The sacred fire is believed to destroy negative thoughts and energies and also acts as a means to deliver blessings and grant requests.
The monks at Ekoin perform the fire ritual every morning at 7:30.
I find myself very much moved by the Goma Fire Ritual and freed of all harmful and obstructive spirits.
After the fire ritual, we head back to the room where we see that the monks have removed the futons and our bedroom is now once again, our dining area. The breakfast trays have been set for us -- while we were out attending the temple services.
Breakfast is light and consists of just one tray -- there is a bowl of miso soup with tofu cubes and seaweed, a small cup of mountain greens and lotus nuts, stewed soybean mixed with vegetables and a packet of dried laver seaweed to eat with the rice.
Shojin ryori means "to progress the spirit" and this balanced harmony of flavours has certainly enhanced my spirit and while light, I feel fortified for the rest of the day.
It is almost time to leave. Check in time at the shukubos in Mount Koya is right after lunch and check out time is before 10 a.m. Before we go, I see the lacquer tray of wooden sticks which are meant to be burned at the daily fire ritual. Called soegomagi, you write your petitions and requests on these sticks and leave them with the monks as offering -- they will be burned at the next day's fire ritual. I made sure I left a few petitions behind for offering the next day.
I leave Ekoin feeling much lighter in spirit than when I entered it yesterday. Strangely, I am not sad to leave -- as I thought I would be. What I feel is gratitude for the moments of serenity and the peacefulness that I experienced during my short stay.
We head out on the road to catch the bus back to the station -- it is Sunday morning and the street is deserted. It's a beautiful day to say good bye to Mount Koya -- at least for now.