It’s 6 o’clock in the AM, it’s cold, I’m hungry, and my hips are sore from sitting Indian style for an hour first thing in the morning. Why am I doing this to myself? Because we’re staying at Haryoin Buddhist Temple in Koyasan, a holy mountain retreat area in Japan, and we’ve decided to drag ourselves out of bed at the crack of dawn to witness the temple’s morning prayer. Buddhism is all about suffering, isn’t it?
Located south of Osaka, Koyasan has 117 subtemples stuffed into 10 square kilometers. If you think that sounds amazing, you’d be right. I have no idea if Koyasan is on the typical Japan tourist route (we heard about it from a Japanese friend—thanks Tomo!!!), but we didn’t see that many other Western tourists while we were here—but we did see loads of Japanese pilgrims, dressed all in white (some wearing bells), wandering from temple to temple and chanting prayers at each stop along the way.
And my goodness, what temples they are! Even more stunning than Kyoto, possibly. Even if you don’t know the first thing about Buddhism, the gorgeous natural surroundings, the awe-inspiring temples and pagodas, and the peaceful disposition of the place will conspire to adjust even the most distracted psyche into a state of mindful consciousness.
Konpo Daito in Dai Gaan temple complex. There were 5 giant golden Buddhas inside, but unfortunately, you are not allowed to take photos inside Japanese temples. To get an idea of the scale of this thing, look on the steps in front of the temple—yes, that’s Jeremy.
Up until 1916, women pilgrims were not allowed into Koyasan, so devout females had to hike a 10 km circuit around the holy mountain area with the hope of glimpsing some of it’s gorgeous temples. Jeremy and I hiked the circuit, which climbs up and down three different 3000 foot mountains and includes many small shrines along the way. It was not a super tough hike, but it was no walk in the park either, and you had to respect these women pilgrims for heir tenacity and devotion. Buddhism is also about mental and physical discipline, right?
Today, the women’s pilgrim route begins in Okunoin, the most amazing cemetery Jeremy and I have ever seen. Wandering through a cemetery may sound creepy, but it wasn’t at all. Perhaps it’s because Buddhists see death differently than we do in the West…or perhaps it was just the incredible forest growing in and around and over all the gravestones. With over half a million (!!!) tombs in this cemetery, that’s no small feat for this forest.
There’s something very comforting about seeing nature swallow up these gravestones and markers. Again, even if you didn’t know the first thing about Buddhism, Okunoin is enough to convince even the most morbid mind that death can be a thing of beauty.
As I mentioned above, Jeremy and I were staying in Haryoin Temple on Koyasan, and one of the common things to do in shukubo (temple lodging) is to eat shojin ryori, a vegetarian meal that is prepared in the temple. It was tasty, though at 2100 yen (US$21) per person, it was definitely not in the budget for both nights.
Our room at Haryoin was the first traditional Japanese style room we stayed in, with a tatami mat floor and futons stored in the closet, to be brought out when you are ready for bed. Though it can be a pain to put your bed away in the morning and take it out at night, we did like how versatile it made the space.
The one thing Jeremy could not deal with at all was the shoe thing. See, Japanese people do not wear their outdoor shoes inside…instead, they take off their shoes and step onto a slatted wood mat to put on their inside slippers. Most places don’t mind if you just walk around in your socks, but Haryoin sort of insisted that we wear the inside slippers. But of course, you cannot wear the slippers on the tatami mat, so you have to take the slippers off before entering your room. To top it all off, there is a separate pair of slippers that you wear in the bathroom. So if you came back to your room from a day of wandering around Koyasan and then went to the bathroom, you would have to take off your outdoor shoes, put on your slippers, go to your room, take off the slippers, put the slippers on again when you leave your room, walk down the hall to the bathroom, take the slippers off, and then put on the bathroom slippers. The Japanese put the “orient” in “process oriented.”
And what can I say about that morning prayer ceremony? Well, it’s not what we expected, that’s for sure. We sort of thought that there would be some bell-ringing and some interactive chanting involved, but Haryoin’s morning prayer involves none of that. Rather, two monks pray out loud for about 30 minutes and then light various candles, eventually culminating in a roaring fire in a metal bowl (which required one monk to get up and turn on the air vent to suck the smoke out of the room). We didn’t understand a word, since it was all in Japanese, and unfortunately, we couldn’t see much either, since we were seated on tatami mats and the altar was raised up on a stage of sorts behind tall screens. Quite frankly, we’re still sort of baffled by the whole thing.
It’s ironic that the spoken ceremony did little to reveal any further insight into Buddhism, but walking around Dai Garan and Okunoin communicated volumes to us. Or…perhaps it’s not ironic at all to learn about Buddhism through observation and experience rather than through the spoken? Buddhism is also about silent meditation, is it not?