Slippers on – slippers off, Chanting for your breakfast..

When I was researching the Japan “research trip” I stumbled upon Mount Koya, or Koyasan, and came across the following entry in wikitravel :

About half of the over 120 temples in town offer
lodging for pilgrims, known as shukubo, in
Japanese. Prices vary between ¥9,000 and ¥15,000
per night and include two meals. You will be
offered the opportunity to join in the morning
prayer session, a hypnotic experience involving
sutra chanting, incense and gongs.

Oooooh. I had never stayed in a monastery before.

And my experience with gongs was limited.

As I read on, the place started to sound more and more intriguing:

All temple lodgings on Mt. Koya offer shojin
ryori, purely vegetarian food intended for monks.
People who equate vegetarian food with blandness
will be surprised – in their hundreds of years of
experience with vegetarian cooking, the monks have
invented amazingly tasty dishes.

Hmmm. Vegetarian food that’s not bland? Prepared by monks? In a monastery?

And gongs?

I had to go and see this place.

Koyasan has a long and distinguished history. In the year 805, a man named Kobo Daishi introduced Shingon Buddhism to Japan. Shingon has gone on to become an important sect and Kobo Daishi is one of Japan’s most important religious figures.

Kobo Daishi wandered the countryside looking for the right place to establish a base for his religion and after many years of searching he found the wooded mountaintop of Koyasan and in 826 he began construction of a temple complex.

Given his importance as a religious figure, Koyasan is also the site of Kobo Daishi’s
mausoleum. Since that first temple was built nearly 1200 years ago, over 120 temples have been constructed in the area and a town sprang up to support the temples, the monks and the pilgrims that come to visit.

One of the ways that the temples generate revenue is by hosting pilgrims and tourists and offering overnight stays. About half of the temples offer this service. Most temples offer 2 meals, breakfast and dinner, as well as the opportunity to attend morning prayers.

As it’s situated on a mountaintop, Koyasan is not that easy to get to. We took a regional train from Nara, then a private railway through the mountains to Gokurakubashi station and then a cable car to Koyasan.

The scenery was lovely, the ride was comfortable, the connections were great and in no
time we were there. Then we caught a local bus and we were dropped off in front of our lodging for the evening. Our monastery.

We checked in and followed a monk down the long, dark corridors until he showed us to our rooms. Sliding paper room dividers as doors, futons on top of tatami mats on thefloor and a small window. Spartan, but very clean and comfortable.

One of the things that I found very interesting was the shoe thing. Japanese do not wear their outside-shoes inside. Instead they have slippers for inside. So you stand on a slatted wooden mat to remove your outside-shoes and put on your slippers. You cannot wear your slippers on the tatami mats so you have to take them off when entering your roomor the dining room. Then there is another set of slippers for the bathroom!

There were men’s and ladies’ rooms as well as segregated areas for bathing, including a big tub for soaking in the hot water, Japanese style, and wooden seats to use in front of the many taps where you wash, twice, before getting into the tub.

After settling in and unpacking, we wandered around the temple a little before we were called to dinner. We were ushered into a small private room, where there were 4 low tables and quite a few cushions on the floor. In traditional Japanese style, we were expected to sit on the floor. We were offered tea and left on our own for a while.

When our monk returned he brought our meals with him. A large tray for each person with a number of plates and bowls and cups, made of wood and porcelain and lacquerware, on each tray. Every course and every different ingredient had its own dishand no two were alike. We counted 12 dishes on each tray. Soup, rice, tempura, steamed vegetables, different types of pickles, tofu, a custard of some type, sauces and an orange. It was beautiful! Everything was edible. As much thought had been put into the presentation as the preparation. It was all wonderful.



To learn more about our cherry blossom trip
in March 2012 and book your spot today!

The next day we woke up very early in order to attend the morning prayer service. A monk came to the door at about 6:30 and we followed him to the temple. The temple was quite dark, but I could make out the altaer with Buddhist figurines, glowing incense sticks, candles and fruit. The ceremony mostly consisted of the monks chanting, lighting candles and reading sutras. There was a little bit of light drumming and very little gonging. Too early for the gong?

We didn’t understand any of the chanting and we couldn’t see very much because the alter was on a raised platform and there were paper screens obscuring our view. Was it worth getting up very early for? It was very spiritual. And Buddhism does mean exploring your own suffering.

Following morning prayers we had another amazing vegetarian meal prepared by the monks before heading out for the day. One last stop before leaving the monastery. Slippers off, bathroom slippers on, bathroom slippers off, slippers on, slippers off, out-side shoes on.

As we walked around the town and past the various temples, we didn’t see many tourists, but we did see quite a few Japanese pilgrims, all dressed in white, some wearing bells, wandering from temple to temple and chanting prayers at each stop along the way.

By far the most impressive part of our walk was Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum, a short walk from our monastery, along a path that took us through a forest of huge and ancient cypress trees. Everywhere you looked there were stones and shrines, laid in memoriam for loved ones and ancestors. There are over half a million of these in the wooded area around the mausoleum and they appear to be growing out of the ground, moss and lichen clinging to them like a protective shroud. Set amongst the massive trees, the whole place seemed as old as time itself, as though it had always been there and always would be. It reminded me of a forest as described by Tolkien. Ancient. Primeval. And full of souls.

We spent one more night in Koyasan, walked through the forest and up to the mausoleum at night, enjoyed another peaceful evening in the monastery and two more wonderful meals.

We didn’t go back to the prayer ceremony the next morning but we did walk along the path, among the shrines and trees, mist rising from the forest floor, each of us in silent, walking meditation.

I went to Koyasan expecting to learn a lot from the prayer ceremony, but I think I got much more out of seeing the pilgrims and by walking around. Ironic that the spoken ceremony gave me little insight into Shingon Buddhism but that walking amongst the age-old temples and forests communicated volumes to me. Perhaps not that ironic at all to learn about Buddhism through observation and experience rather than through the spoken word. After all, Buddhism is about silent meditation isn’t it?

Speaking of meditation, in the next post we’ll explore a few Japanese gardens and get Zen



To learn more about our cherry blossom trip
in March 2012 and book your spot today!

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One Response to Slippers on – slippers off, Chanting for your breakfast..

  1. Jade Lovell says:

    Dear Karl,
    Thank you for the conversation…you write so well, whetting the appetite for travel. Keith and I are committed to birding in Panama in Jan and hiking Yukon & Alaska in Aug but who knows where 2012 will find us?
    Best Wishes,
    Jade & Keith

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