High in the Kii Mountains lies the vast Buddhist monastery complex of Koyasan (Mt. Koya). Founded 1,200 years ago by the monk Kobo Daishi, it is one of Japan’s most sacred sites. The original complex has expanded over the centuries, and today Koyasan holds over 100 temples, a university, a small town, and the largest cemetery in Japan, which contains the graves of many famous historical figures. Wrapped in towering forests of cedars, Koyasan is a serene, secluded place, populated mostly by monks and their families. It is also a popular destination for pilgrims, students, and explorers, with many temples offering overnight lodging and meals for visitors.
I’d been meaning to visit Koyasan for many years; it was, in fact, my intended destination last spring, but then of course the pandemic hit, and all travel ground to a halt. This year, as travel within Japan opened a bit more, I seized the chance to get out of the Tokyo area and hit the road once again. This time I brought a friend, Lewis, another Wisconsin boy who happens to work in my area and shares a lot of my same interests. We stayed for two evenings at the Koyasan temples of Saizen-ji and Yochi-in as the first part of a week-long journey through the mountains, forests, villages, and pilgrimage sites of Wakayama Prefecture.
Saizen-ji Temple served us both dinner and breakfast during our stay. Both meals were wonderful, but dinner was easily the best I’ve had all year, featuring delicately fried tempura that melted on the tongue, assorted citrus fruits and pickled vegetables, sponge-like koyadofu soaked in broth so that it gushed when bitten, steaming red miso soup, sweet beans, and hot sake.
At the heart of Koyasan stands the mighty Danjo Garan temple complex. Photos do not do it justice; the towering orange Konpon Daito Pagoda with its sweeping rooftops must be seen in person in order to appreciate how massive it is. This is the oldest part of Koyasan, the site where the Buddhist saint Kobo Daishi (known during his lifetime as Kukai) first began building his monastic community over 1,200 years ago.
In the year 804, at the age of 30, Kukai sailed to China in order to study esoteric Buddhism, seeking to understand a mysterious, half-translated, sacred text called the Mahavairocana Tantra. The voyage was fraught with peril; of the four ships that set sail on the government-sponsored expedition, only two reached China, with one ship lost in a storm and another turned back by the deadly weather. That was not the end of trouble, either, for after weeks of sea travel, the Japanese voyagers were initially denied entry by the Chinese government. Kukai, however, used his fluency in Chinese to write an appeal to the local governor, and after a few days the ships were allowed into the harbor.
Once in China, Kukai travelled to the great city of Chang’an, the Tang Dynasty’s capital. There, at Ximing Temple, he spent two years studying esoteric Buddhism, the Sanskrit language, calligraphy, art, and Chinese poetry under various leading masters, as well as learning the secrets of the Mahavairocana Tantra. Kukai was an exceptionally fast learner, and after only two years he returned to Japan as a recognized Buddhist master in his own right. He gained Imperial permission to found the Shingon school of esoteric Buddhism on Mt. Koya, and set forth constructing the religious community that exists there to this day.
Legend has it that, before his return to Japan, Kukai took up in his hand a mighty vajra (a double-headed, trident-like ceremonial weapon, originally from India and often used in religious rites), and hurled it into the eastern sky, toward his home country. The sacred object vanished over the horizon. Upon returning to Japan, Kukai wandered the country until he discovered the vajra speared into the trunk of a pine tree on Mt. Koya, and thereby knew where to build his monastery. A twin-forked “Vajra Pine” still stands at the same location today, on the grounds of the Danjo Garan temple complex.
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Among Koyasan’s most renowned sights is the vast, moss-draped cemetery, Okunoin. From the east end of Koyasan, it runs northward deep into the forest for over a mile and contains hundreds of thousands of graves. Smaller lanes branch off from the main path, spidering off into the trees—it is a tranquil necropolis, a serenely beautiful city for the dead. Some graves are new, but most are ancient, dating back hundreds or even a thousand years. The famed warlord Oda Nobunaga has a grave here, as do Takeda Shingen and his son Katsuyori. The cemetery is a deeply sacred place, for at the northernmost end of Okunoin lie the holy Lantern Hall and the mausoleum of St. Kobo Daishi himself.
On approaching the Lantern Hall—the main hall of worship at Okunoin—one reaches the Gobyo Bridge, which spans a forest stream called the Jewel River. Beyond that point, no photography by guests is permitted. (Pictures of the Lantern Hall can be found online, however, and it is truly a magnificent place to behold). The hall contains thousands of lanterns that burn day and night. Tradition holds that the sacred fires have been burning continuously since the year 1016.
On the wooded slope behind the Lantern Hall lies the most sacred place in Koyasan—the chamber where Kobo Daishi is interred. Legends say that he is not dead, but resting in a state of eternal meditation, awaiting the arrival of Maitreya, the Buddha of the age to come. To this very day, Koyasan monks bring food and drink to the saint’s mausoleum.
I took the opportunity to visit Okunoin twice; once after dark, and again in the morning. It was a starkly different experience each time. At night the place had an eerie, spectral beauty, with graves silhouetted in the light of the stone lanterns lining the path and the trees creaking in the mountain wind. The occasional bird cry haunted the dark branches, and the click of my boots on the stone path seemed to echo in the cavernous forest, but there were no other sounds in the night, and to speak out loud seemed taboo, an act of vandalism on the pristine silence. Apart from Lewis at my side, not a soul was around to be seen, until I finally reached the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi, where a lone woman sat in the glow of the Lantern Hall, clutching a rosary and chanting prayers.
I left my camera behind on that first visit, as I’ve come to find that cameras can often steal away the very moments we are trying to capture and preserve in the first place. It was something of a painful choice, since the scenery was so utterly beautiful, but I wanted to see Okunoin for the first time without the distraction of thinking about the best angles and shots, to be truly present and to experience the place through my own eyes instead of through a lens. Only on my next visit did I bring my camera, and found the place transformed in the morning sunlight—an enchanted, gleaming forest, the graves and monuments grown over with green, generations and entire histories etched in stone, some still legible, others crumbling and faded.