A Walk With The Kobo Daishi

The Kobo Daishi

At the tail end of a Japanese summer, we walked hand-in-hand with the Kobo Daishi, a monk who has spent the last thousand years waiting for the Buddha of the Future.

One of eight mountains which comprise a lotus-shaped mandala, Koyasan was sacred even before the Daishi established his monastic retreat here in 816 AD. Famed not only for bringing Shingon Buddhism to Japan but also as a poet, painter and calligrapher, the Kobo Daishi remains of the most revered figures in Japanese history. Today he sits in repose in his mausoleum, the Oko-in, where monks bring him food twice a day.


The entrance to Koyasan (c) A. Harrison
The entrance to Koyasan (c) A. Harrison
One of the many temples on Koya-san
One of the many temples on Koya-san | Source
Decorated grave carvings in Koya-san
Decorated grave carvings in Koya-san | Source
Some of the half a million graves on Japan's Holy Mountain
Some of the half a million graves on Japan's Holy Mountain | Source

A Train To Koyasan

Sacred even before the Daishi established his monastic retreat here in 816, Koyasan is only two hours by train from Osaka. Speeding through the Osaka’s outskirts, our train passed a maze of alleyways and traditional wooden houses (complete with vegetable plots and tiny rice paddies filling any space). Then the land opened into farmland, with the occasional dots of a village or even a small town.

The train came to an unexpected stop, and as everyone else melted into the countryside, we were left standing on a deserted station. We dripped with sweat. Farmers with conical straw hats worked fields cultivated for centuries. It was a scene lifted straight from the anime of Hayao Miyazaki (famous for classics such as Spirited Away and My Friend Totoro).

Fortunately, a train arrived before we had emptied the ubiquitous vending machine of offerings. As the land climbed, the summer heat faded. Fruit trees heavy with blossom morphed into primeval forests of pine and cypress. At Gokuraku-bashi Station, (where the train-line ends), monks, pilgrims and tourists alike were ushered into a cable car; it leapt into a wall of green, carrying us to the top of the Holy Mountain.


Travel Literature

Japanese Inn
Japanese Inn

The story of an inn which has operated since 1596

 

Reaching Koyasan

Buses transport everyone to the centre of town – including the monks with their robes of black covered with saffron shawls, for walking from the station is forbidden. The road pottered through the trees, its edge marked by moss-covered rocks. Everything held the colour of dark moss or grey stone; the trees, the road, the view down the mountain, even the air. As a result everything looked a little hazy, as if we saw things from a distant, slower time.

Despite both its age and being listed as a World Heritage site, Koyasan is not a town which has fallen asleep. It remains a mix of Buddhist monasteries and white-robed pilgrims with their staves of bells, sun-drenched cypress groves and school kids running home for lunch. The main street is cluttered with supermarkets, restaurants, ceramic shops, even a chemist who stocks sun-block and mosquito repellent amongst bottles of unrecognisable dried flora and fauna.

Starting the walk in Koyasan (c) A. Harrison
Starting the walk in Koyasan (c) A. Harrison
A prayer-tree in the Kobo Daishi's  temple complex
A prayer-tree in the Kobo Daishi's temple complex | Source
The Great Gate guarding the entrance to Koya-san
The Great Gate guarding the entrance to Koya-san | Source
A temple guardian (c) A. Harrison
A temple guardian (c) A. Harrison

A Pilgrimage With the Kobo Daishi

The journey with the Kobo Dashi begins at a stone basin. Ubiquitous to Japanese temples, these basins overflow with running water, usually from a nearby stream. After ladling icy water over our hands, we bowed on crossing the graceful Ichinohashi Bridge; the Kobo Daishi then joined us. A lady in the shop opposite smiled and waved.

A path then wound through the Okunoin, a grove of cypress and some half a million tombs. Here the faithful have been buried since the Kobo Daishi’s death. Moss has eroded many of the markings. Many tracks lead to even more graves hidden in dells and forgotten grottos. Simple stone plaques and wooden markers, or animal shaped-stones bedecked with red cloths or aprons rested beside the mausoleums of shoguns.

Shafts of sunlight tumbled through the ancient trees, and mites danced in the sunbeams. We walked through streams of light and shadow. Although the dead have been waiting here for over a thousand years, workmen were repainting the markers in one section, and at another grave a monk chanted a service.



An ancient temple in Koyasan (c) A. Harrison
An ancient temple in Koyasan (c) A. Harrison
Graves along the Okunoin (c) A. Harrison
Graves along the Okunoin (c) A. Harrison
A path in Koyasan begging to be explored (c) A. Harrison
A path in Koyasan begging to be explored (c) A. Harrison

The Oko-In: Temple of the Kobo Daishi

After a thirty minute stroll, the track opened onto the main temple complex. Suddenly the place bustles, for another path (almost a road) comes straight from a huge car park where buses grind to a halt, delivering tourists intent on achieving enlightenment in a few hours. On this walkway are many gaudy (and theologically suspect) edifices, such as the White Ant Memorial, built as a guilt offering by a pesticide company.

Yet, despite the bustle, the temple complex remains a place of contemplation. The air was saturated with the scent of candles and incense. A stone bridge arches over the Takugawa River, which is dotted with wooden memorials for those who have drowned. Pilgrims ladled water over huge Jizo statues, and at one shrine, families queued to offer the ashes of their loved ones.

The Oko-in remains the heart of Koya-san. Amongst the crowds, this dark but spacious building remains is an oasis with calm. A section is reserved for those who wish to merely sit and, along with the Kobo Daishi, contemplate the road to Nirvana. Nearby stands the Hall of 3000 Lanterns (the Toro-do ), where two lamps have burned for over a thousand years without needing fresh oil. Another hall houses the Buddhist writings brought here by Tripitata, the prince of Monkey fame.

Despite hosting over a million pilgrims a year, Koya-san remains a spiritual place. With most leaving by mid-afternoon, the tempo changes as the day passes. Once boasting nearly one thousand temples, over one hundred still remain, including the Konpon Daito(or Great Stupa), begun by the Kobo Daishi himself.

Many of the temples lie hidden behind wooden gates and guarded by stone lions, with the occasional glimpse of a balcony. The oldest building, the Fudo-do, dates to 1197. It is part of the Danjogaran complex, which houses Japan’s largest rock garden: 140 pieces of granite arranged to resemble a pair of dragons emerging from the clouds.


Many statues are decorated (c) A. Harrison
Many statues are decorated (c) A. Harrison
The entrance to one of the many temples (c) A. Harrison
The entrance to one of the many temples (c) A. Harrison
ANother temple complex, Koyasan (c) A. Harrison
ANother temple complex, Koyasan (c) A. Harrison

Sleeping in Koyasan

Some of the temples offer shukubo, or lodging. In our room, a bamboo screen opened onto a garden of contemplation; a sea of moss-covered rocks and sculptured azalea bushes, with white pebbles scattered around the larger stepping-stones. A stone lantern stood in one corner, as if it had done so for centuries.

At dawn, a deep bell summoned the faithful from sleep, while the chanting of the monks flowed from the centuries-old temple into the mist of dawn. The flames of their offerings shot into the air, the light licking the wooden walls (perhaps the reason why only one hundred of the original thousand temples remain).

A traditional Japanese breakfast, followed by a bus ride back to the station, then the cable-car back down the hill; it felt as if we were slowly returning from a distant land to the chaos of the present.


© 2011 Anne Harrison

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7 comments

Jonn Christie 90 profile image

Jonn Christie 90 2 years ago from Australia

A beautiful tranquil spot to contemplate your journey of life and the beauty of life itself underneath a Japanese maple .This beautiful place in

Japan looks absolutely stunning with its beautiful temples and gardens it looks so far revved from the crowed cities of Japan how lucky you must feel to visit such beautiful places around this beautiful world.


Anne Harrison profile image

Anne Harrison 2 years ago from Australia Author

Like Assisi, Koya-san is both a beautiful and a spiritual place to visit. There are many magical and wonderful places to visit in this world, and hubpages is a great place to start your dreaming!


Jonn Christie 90 profile image

Jonn Christie 90 2 years ago from Australia

Most certainly Anne like Assisi Koya- San looks very spiritual as is the beautiful Lake Louise it has such a magical presence about it that is one place that i would call heaven on earth watching over from the 8th story of the chateau i could not help but cry i guess Milford sound would have that same magical power haha yes to put your dreams into action and fly away with your dreams.


Nancy Hardin profile image

Nancy Hardin 2 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

I will never be able to visit such places, but I visit them through writings such as this. My mental images aided by your descriptions helped me to understand the peace and quiet it brought to me. I can only imagine what it would be to actually visit, but consider myself lucky to have found this beautiful page. Thank you for sharing.


Anne Harrison profile image

Anne Harrison 2 years ago from Australia Author

Thank you so much for your kind comments. Much as I love travelling, there are many places I will also never visit, but that never stops me dreaming, reading, arm-chair travelling… I'm glad my hub could help you in this way.


ReviewsfromSandy profile image

ReviewsfromSandy 19 months ago from Wisconsin

Oh how I would love to be there. Very nice reading about it. Voted up.


Anne Harrison profile image

Anne Harrison 19 months ago from Australia Author

Thank you, I hope you make it there some day

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