May day. I get up and step outside the room. It’s only 4am, but the sun is already rising, a very light breeze gently strokes my hair, the garden scent tickles my nosetrils. No neon, no crowds, no crashes of city sound, no traffic, no smoke, no people’s faces glued to their smartphones, no hectic energy. Just the trees, the sun, and the shadows of temples curving tiled roofs against the sky. An appeasing aura. The description may sound like a dream book, however that book happens to have been real..
Mount Koya – commonly called Koyasan – is located in the northeastern part of Wakayama in Japan. Master Kobo Daishi, known as the Master founder of the Shingon Buddhism school, established a mountain retreat at Mount Koya as a retreat from worldly affairs. He began construction on the original Garan temple complex in 826 after wandering the country for years in search of a suitable place to center his religion. Since then over one hundred temples are scattered throughout the area, forming a great religious city, thus its sacred status.
Koyasan is definitely one of Japan’s best places to experience an overnight where you can get a taste of a monk’s lifestyle, for which we chose Ekoin temple. One of Kobo Daishi’s own disciples, a monk named Dobo, built Ekoin almost 1200 years ago. “Eko” originally means “Transference of Merit.”
The day we arrived, the monk in charge of the guests, a soft-spoken young man with a very warm smile, told us about the schedule, from meditations sessions in the afternoon to the morning services – we then made the choice to participate in Ajikan, a kind of meditation session in which he would speak in English – then he showed us to our room. One of the most striking features of Ekoin is all of the guests rooms have a breathtaking garden view. Each room features a tatami-mat flooring, comfortable futon bedding, rice-paper windows and sliding doors, with a very pleasant touch : a little tea set, with green tea and mochi (rice cake with sweet stuffing). We poured ourselves a cup while sitting on the terrace, and watched the quiet temple afternoon pass by.
With time in our hands we went for a stroll around Koyasan. Ekoin is a 10 minutes walk to other ancient Buddhist buildings such as Kongobu-ji Temple (head temple of the Koyasan Shingon Buddhism), Danjogaran, a heartland of Mt. Koya, and a 3 minutes walk to the Okunoin cemetery, where Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum can be seen.
Dinner time. Served in the guest room at 5:30pm, the meal served is Shojin-ryori, special vegetarian Buddhist cuisine using only vegetables, cereals, seaweed and tofu, which we ate in mindful silence, finishing every last grain of rice and drop of extra tea. Later one can go and relax in one their hot baths. Ekoin provides shared baths (same gender only) for both women and men, opened from 4pm-10pm and 6am-9am daily. The bath is heated from the natural water of Koyasan mountains. Perhaps the sacred nature of the site plays its role, but after the bath, not only your body is relaxed but as soon as your head touches the pillow, you switch off and are transported into the land of peaceful dreams.
To note that temple’s life starts up very early. At 4-5am one can already hear the light yet distinct footsteps of the monks who are already busy preparing the breakfast (just as delicious and also vegetarian), cleaning up the halls and getting ready for their Goma fire ritual. As we left the place, the monk gave us a present, a guide to the temple paired with a set of beautiful wooden chopsticks.
Though I only stayed one night at Koyasan’s Ekoin Temple, it was enough to become one of my most vivid memories from my time in Japan, a country of advance technology and other innovations, a country where everyone has the latest smartphone. In contrast, is a chance to witness a lifestyle that’s completely different – one that’s calmer, older. Mount Koya is a place to disconnect from the powerhouse of modern Japan, and reconnect to a quieter part of its history.
Koyasan is most conveniently accessed by Nankai Railways from Osaka’s Namba Station. Take the Nankai Koya Line from either station to the Gokurakubashi terminal station via limited express trains (80 minutes ride), express or rapid express train (100 minutes ride, departs every 20-30 minutes). At Gokurakubashi, transfer to the cablecar which travels up the mountain to Koyasan. The ride takes about five minutes and once at the top it’s a ten minute bus ride into the town centre.
Ekoin Temple information http://www.ekoin.jp/en/