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A Walk With Kobo Daishi

I find Japan fascinating; a thoroughly modern country interwoven with a living history dating back thousands of years.


At the tail end of a Japanese summer, we walked hand-in-hand with Kobo Daishi, a monk who has spent the last 1,000 years waiting for the Buddha of the Future.

One of eight mountains which comprise a lotus-shaped mandala, Koya-san 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, 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 Koya-san

The entrance to Koya-san

A Train to Koya-san

Koya-san is only two hours by train from Osaka. Speeding through 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 Neighbor 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.

Starting the walk in Koya-san

Starting the walk in Koya-san

Reaching Koya-san

From the station, 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, the world 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, Koya-san 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, and even a chemist who stocks sun-block and mosquito repellent amongst bottles of unrecognisable dried flora and fauna.

A prayer tree in Kobo Daishi's temple complex

A prayer tree in Kobo Daishi's temple complex

A Pilgrimage With Kobo Daishi

The journey with 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; 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 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.

Graves along the Okunoin

Graves along the Okunoin

The Oko-In: Temple of Kobo Daishi

After a 30-minute stroll, the track opened onto the main temple complex. The air was saturated with the scent of candles and incense. A stone bridge arches over the Tokugawa 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 an oasis of calm. A section is reserved for those who wish to merely sit and, along with 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 Tripitaka, 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 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

Many statues are decorated

Sleeping in Koya-san

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