|Mount Koya. Ed
Readicker-Henderson, author of The Traveler's Guide to Japanese
Pilgrimages, wrote that if he had one day to spend in Japan, he'd
spend it here. For experienced Japan travelers, I think he's
right. (Newcomers should spend the day in Kamakura.)
Founded by Kobo Daishi--about whom
you'll be hearing a lot in the next weeks--this mountaintop sanctuary,
820 meters (2,665 feet) above sea level, has a rare combination of
natural beauty and religious presence. For example: it's located
in a basin surround by eight peaks, which to the religiously-minded
represent the eight petals of the sacred lotus. Thus the dweller
on Koya is in the center of the sacred.
Although the foundation of this massive
complex was laid nearly 1200 years ago, it has been destroyed and
rebuilt may times. Few buildings are more than two or three
hundred years old. Yet the notion that people have been
"doing religion" here for so long pervades everything.
This place has never not been a center for the development of
spirituality, as long as humans have occupied it.
You can find a full account of the legend of the
founding of the monastic complex on Koyasan here.
Essentially, it says that, while studying in China, Kukai (later Kobo
Daishi, about whom you'll hear a lot) threw his sanko (a
ceremonial implement) as far as he could, and it landed in a tree on a
mountain in Japan (!). After returning to Japan, he requested use
of the mountain from the emperor, and was granted the area now known as
Koyasan. On his way to the mountain, he met a gigantic red-bearded
hunter, with two dogs, one black and one white. This was in fact
Kariba Myoujin, the Shinto god of Mount Koya (along with his mother, the
goddess Nibu Myoujin). He guided Kobo Daishi to the sanko
in the pine, where the Daishi established his monastery, and later built
a Shinto shrine (seen on my Garan page) to propitiate the Myoujin.
This is another case of the syncretism involved when one religion
(Buddhism) moves into the area of another (Shinto).
Now, for the details of my day. I left Nara
before 10, and took several trains until I reached the base of the cable
car up to Koyasan. I had been hoping to walk up the mountain, but
my research showed that this involves a steep hike of approximately 20
kilometers! Not today.
I took the cable car up, and took a bus
the 3 kilometers or so to the stop near the Youth Hostel, which is quite
near the center of town.
I dropped my bag around 1:00--too early
to check in--and walked 5 minutes or so to the information center to get
details for tomorrow's ferry ride. Then I shopped a bit in the
religious curios shops and the bookstore, but didn't buy anything.
Finally, I headed for today's goal: the
Garan area of Koyasan.
First, I stopped briefly at the Kongobuji. This large hall and associated gardens is the center
not only of all the temples in the Koya complex, but of about 3,000
temples nationwide. I didn't go inside, as I've been there before
and have plenty of pictures. But I felt good about just stopping
to say "hi" to an old friend.
Note the water buckets on the top and
the ladder always at the ready in case of fire.
Next to the Kongobuji stands this
impressive bell. It has been used to toll the time on Mount Koya
since the 1600's. It still tolls all the even hours from 6 a.m. to
10 p.m. (The old Japanese method of timekeeping separated the day
into 12 divisions, each one equal to two modern hours. I imagine
that's why this bell sounds only on the even numbers.
Koyasan is campaigning to become a
designated World Heritage Site. (One is shocked to discover it
isn't!) Anyway, these signs are all over the mountain. I
hope the syntax doesn't hurt their chances of being selected!
I arrived shortly at the Garan
precincts. This is one of the most amazing assemblages of
religious architecture in Japan, worthy of a Words
and Pictures page. I said
today's prayers in front of a stunning gilded image of Dainichi Nyorai
surrounded by four other Buddhas. (You can learn more about these
in the Words and Pictures page
about the "Gochi Nyorai.") Dainichi means
"Great Sun," the Indian Vairocana. He is the central
figure in Shingon Buddhism (Kobo Daishi's sect), and also happens to be
the guardian of my birth month (July). Unfortunately, photos
weren't allowed inside the hall; if I can find an image on the Internet,
I'll add it later.
Meanwhile, enjoy the Words
and Pictures of the Garan.
At the far western reach of the
mountain's east-west axis lies the Daimon. Two of the seven paths
up the mountain met here, and it was the natural entry point for those
coming from the capital. These days, two car roads approach
it--then swerve around it.
I strolled on back to the town center,
had some vegetarian food (one of the delights of Koya) and checked in to
the Hostel early. All in all, a relaxing day, and a necessary
break before starting my "official" pilgrimage tomorrow.
(For more on that, see today's Journal.)