From Osaka we made our way to the idyllic mountain village of Koya – a trip which took a fair amount longer than expected.. But which was 100% worth the journey.
This little mountain town is one which owes it’s origins to the Buddhist settlers who retreated into the wild beauty found here in search of enlightenment in the year 819. Since then however a handful of beautiful temples, shrines and shukubo (traditional Japanese Buddhist lodgings) have sprouted up amongst the leafy hillside, making Koya even more beautiful, as a population seeking peace has grown here. And today Koyasan (Mount Koya) is a popular pilgrimage site and tourist destination for those seeking an experience which is a little different and a little more spiritual than what you might otherwise encounter in your travels. And despite these growing crowds, Koya is yet to loose its quaint, countryside appeal. Thank goodness.
So, unfortunately for us we only had one day to spend in the small village of Koya. But it was a day well spent. We strolled slowly beneath red and orange autumn leaves. We meandered through temple grounds with beautiful, bright coloured pagodas and simple, traditional halls of worship which housed massive Buddha and intricate golden chandeliers. We crossed trickling mountain streams on small wooden bridges. We explored a cemetery that stretched further into the forest than we could see and that held the remains of people who existed literally thousands of years before us. We soaked in the beauty of Japanese mountainside life through every pore in our bodies. We felt the icy prickle of the mountain air, and we silently accepted the age of a world which existed before our own home country had even been discovered…
And we stayed here, in this quiet place, overnight – in a shukubo! Which was an experience in its own right worth the journey. Our shukubo was everything that I had hoped for! – A simple building made of paper and wood with minimal furnishings and a beautiful garden. In fact our room was almost bare – presented with only a low table for us to sit under, a small mirror, a tea set and a couple of robes and towels. And at dinner time, to preserve this bare-feel our low table was even moved aside and we ate from small trays on the floor, which were then removed before bedtime so that we could sleep on thin mats (futon) on the same floor – A brilliant kind of simplicity that resists all risk of clutter and overcrowding.
And in staying in a shukubo somewhat of a routine was to be upheld so that the regular routine of the monks who resided here permanently was not disturbed. So first was dinner, at 6pm. This was an easy meal made up of several small components. Pickles, tofu, rice, green tea, tempura vegetables, fresh persimmon – a vegetarian meal reflective of the gentle nature of the Buddhist way.
Then, after dinner was bath time. In a communal shower and bath room (separated into men’s and women’s). Here procedure called for one to soap and wash themselves, nakedly, in an open shower area and then use the bath to simply sit and relax in.
And finally was bed time. Our beds followed in the same basic, contractible and simplistic style of everything else. They were just light rolls laid out on the tatami-mat floor with thick blankets and a small bean sack for a pillow.
In totality it all added up to an amazing level of simplicity. The kind that calls into question the idea of possessions and furnishings at all. The kind that creates a yearning deep within in you for less. The kind that we came here seeking, and were very happy to find. And although our sleep may have been a little uncomfortable as a result of our thin mattresses and the outside light coming in through our thin paper walls.. it was a wonderful sleep none the less.
So we rose before the sun (at 6am) for morning prayer in the shukubo temple – a wonderfully adorned room of gold and incense and idols. And we sat silently for over an hour, listening to the echoing hum of the resident monks as they mediated through sound. And it really was fascinating how their voices were amplified within that temple to create a deep, reverberating buzz inside of each person present. One that wriggled through your insides in an almost tangible, feel-able kind of way. One that created a ghostly presence in the room – as if there were more voices contributing than could be seen.. It was certainly a calming way to awake from our night time slumbers.
And a light breakfast was waiting for us after the ceremony. To signal the end of a perfect night in Japan. Another basic meal comprised of several small, tasty, meat-less components. Seaweed, rice, pickles, miso, green tea, tofu.
And the only, ever so slightly, tarnishing aspect of this whole experience (really a tiny, tiny one) was the monk who sat with us at breakfast.. he, unlike the others, was not Japanese – which was not my issue with him. It was just that.. he just didn’t seem very.. Buddhist.. I guess. His approach towards teaching us a little more about the Koya way of life over breakfast just seemed very.. condescending… and judgemental… with questions like “how do you feel when you are sick? Do you feel good? Do you enjoy it? Do you? Who feels good when they are sick? Put your hand up if you feel good when you are sick? Does any one feel good when they are sick?.. you know, those weird, obvious, childish kind of questions that serve no purpose other than to reaffirm the beliefs of the one who poses them. And everyone at breakfast was slow to respond to them.. because.. well, because half of us had our mouths full and half of us were unsure what the hell was going on. But also perhaps because we had all been enjoying the spell-like quiet of our mountain retreat. I mean, I assume that the purpose of any traveller who is found staying in a place like this must be to, on some level, seek personal peace and enlightenment. Whether that be short or long term or on a deep or shallow level, or through prescribed Buddhist ways or more personal, internal ones.. Certainly everyone seemed happy to delight in the quiet of the place. And of all characters.. for a monk to challenge and disturb this.. with repetitive, self-validating unimportance… it was weird. It didn’t fit. And maybe I misinterpreted his intentions. Maybe I misread his manner. But Sam too felt that his attempt at teaching(?) us was awkward. And it wasn’t that I intended to avoid learning on this excursion and was simply being ignorant! Like I mentioned – we had spent the whole pervious day walking through temples and shrines and the giant cemetery of Koya. And we had been taking it all in alongside the appropriate facts, signposts and brochures with some interest.. but I just… I do wish, on this occasion, that this one man had let us walk through the path of discovery alone.. that he had let us do it in our own ways. In our quiet ways. I wish that he hadn’t tried to school us like small children. I wish that he hadn’t acted in such an arrogant way.. Ultimately my time in Koya was perfect. But he. Was not.
And not long after breakfast we had to descend the gorgeous mountain side. But we did so with our eventual return already in mind.
Next stop – Nara!