continued from "Peekaboo Fuji-san"

Of the 117 temples in Koyasan, 53 offer lodgings to visitors. These are called "shukubo" and may include two meals a day and morning sutra chanting. Food is strictly vegetarian. This way of cooking is called Shōjin Ryori, and was brought to Japan with Buddhism. Much more than just vegetarian cooking, it literally means to cook in a way that leads one to enlightenment.

Our choice of shukubo - based on location, small size, reviews, and history - was Saizen-in. The temple is right across the road from the Danjo Garan. Garan is a word that comes from the Sanskrit "smaghrama" which means a quiet place for monks to gather. It was here that Kobo Daishi first built a temple complex in the 9th century which has served as a focal point for study, training, and rituals of Shingon monks ever since.

Our room, on the second floor of a new wing, had a lovely view of the temple courtyard and the great stupa called Konpon Daito - a key building in the Danjo Garan.

On our first evening we were taken to another private room on the ground floor to be served dinner. The room had a view of the main garden of Saizen-in, which was designed by the famous landscape architect, Shigemori Mirei (1896–1975) .

Tea room which is part of Matsushita's rooms

After dinner we were shown the rooms donated by the founder of Panasonic - Konosuke Matsushita (1894 – 1989). The room also faces the rock garden. Matsuhita wrote his last of 44 books there. Due to his old age and frail condition at the time, the book was dictated.

In Japanese style lodgings, while one is out for dinner, the room is transformed for sleeping. One little detail I did not know about was the bell inside the Danjo Garan -

This bell, cast in 1547 is located about 175 meters (575 feet) from our room. It is rung at 9 PM, 11 PM, and 4 AM. Maybe other times as well, but those were the hours I noticed! We were told it is used primarily for the nearby high school (they wake up at 4 am?). It is struck at 20 second intervals to allow the sound to fully dissipate each time. It did disturb my sleep the first night (11 PM equals 23 strikes), but not the second night. The tone is quite beautiful, which is of little consolation when you are awakened in the middle of the night. I'm sure there is a deep lesson in there somewhere, but it eludes me.

Early each morning, guests go to the hondo - gathering place of the temple - and sit before the altar as three monks perform sutra chanting. After thirty minutes or so, the head monk gives a talk to the guests. In our case, the first day he told the story of Kobo Daishi and the founding of Koyasan. On the second, it was about Saizen-in.

One of the more interesting bits of the history of Saizen-in to me was that Shinran Shonin (1173-1263), a monk of the "Pureland" tradition and long time resident of Ibaraki (and of whom I have written previously ) stayed at Saizen-in. He built a shelter there and carved an image of Amida Buddha, and referred to the place as Amida-in. The statue is still there. After services, the head monk took me to the altar adjacent to the main one which is dedicated to Shinran Shonin and features an image of him.

After morning sutra chanting, we would return to our room (around 7:30 am) to find breakfast being served.

On the first morning, after breakfast, we were taken to see the other garden designed by Shigemori Mirei. It is the back of the temple complex and features a koi pond with lotus plants.

Oh, the wonderful food. Prepared mindfully and hopefully eaten mindfully - appreciating deeply everything and everyone involved in making the meal possible and this time and place.

We had timed out trip to be ahead of the Obon rush, and so our time in Koyasan was very peaceful. In fact, there were only about a dozen guests at Saizen-in the first night, and on the second night we were the sole guests!

An intriguing discovery - looking up from our window at the roof gables, I notices a HF radio antenna. Could the monks be using short wave radio? Is this a new path to enlightenment? I neglected to ask, but later discovered a web page about the station - call sign JH3GAH - but it seems the last update was two years ago, so not sure if it is still operating.

Saizen-in was a wonderful place to stay and is an excellent location from which to explore Koyasan. We will surely stay there again.

What (else) we found in Koyasan, coming up in the next post.

つづく (to be continued)


Peekaboo Fuji-san

Last week we took a trip to Wakayama Prefecture which I'll be blogging about in this and coming posts. Our first destination was Koyasan, a mountain village founded in 819 by the Buddhist Monk Kukai (now referred to as Kōbō-Daishi by followers), who brought the Shingon sect of Buddhism from China to Japan. At one time, there were over 900 temples there. Today there are still over 100 temples, and it is a very active place for religious studies, pilgrimages, and tourists interested in Japanese history, religions, and natural beauty. About half the temples offer accommodations to visitors.

Koyasan is located at the north end of the Kii Mountains. For its natural spendor and historical significance as an area long traveled by pilgrims, the entire area was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.

To get there, we took the Nozomi Super Express train from Tokyo to Osaka.

Nozomi 700 series trains in Tokyo Station. Earlier cab design (the Duck) on the right; latest design (the Eagle) on the left. The aerodynamics of the Eagle squeezes an additional 30 kph out of the Nozomi, allowing it to hit 300 kph (186 mph) on some sections of the Shinkansen line. The main limit to speed is noise, so near cities, the trains are a bit slower.

As I have written before, taking into consideration the time required to get to and from airports, check in, security screening, and waiting for baggage, the trains are often faster than the airlines. And there's one leaving every ten minutes, so forget the scheduling hassles.

I had only seen Mt. Fuji once from the Shinkansen, and that was over twenty years ago. It is often shrouded in clouds. So, this trip I was hoping to be lucky. Well, Fuji-san was indeed shrouded in clouds, but came out to play a game of peek-a-boo as we sped past.

At this time of year there is no snow atop the mountain, but it was an impressive sight none the less. Thank you for making an appearance, Fuji-san!

We got off the Shinkansen at Shin-Osaka station, took a short subway ride and a little wallk to reach Namba station. From there, the Nankai Koya line would take us up to the base of Koyasan.

The ride takes about an hour and a half and goes from near sea level to an elevation of about 600 meters, at Gokurakubashi station (literally "Pure Land bridge" a religious reference to the Buddhist paradise).

The ride is quite scenic, especially as you climb into the mountains, and the train has big windows so you need't miss anything. If you take this train, do try to get seats on the right hand side as this will give you the best of the scenery. Luckily, our train had few passengers, so we were able to switch sides at will. Still, photography proved tricky due to greenery close to the tracks, the reflections on the windows, and speed of the train. So, perhaps, just sit back and enjoy the view.

At the end of the line, you switch to the Koya Cable Car, a funicular train which opened in 1930 that takes you the rest of the way up the mountain - another 200 meters - in about five minutes. It's a steep climb at angle of 30°. The mother of the little girl in the cable car image was just in front of us. She motioned to her daughter to hang on tight. How unusual in Japan to see a parent allow their child to have such an exciting experience on their own without being overprotective (aka "helicopter mom").

From there, it's short bus ride into the town, where this story really begins....

つづく (to be continued)

next: Saizen-in