KOYA-SAN, Wakayama Pref. — If there is one all-round good guy to emerge from the pages of Japanese history, someone for whom nobody seems to have a bad word, it is Kobo Daishi (A.D. 774-835). Buddhist saint, scholar, spiritual healer, calligrapher, poet, sculptor, engineer, supposed originator of the kana syllabary — what this popular polymath didn’t get up to wasn’t worth bothering about.
Throughout Japan, there is no lack of places linked with the great man, usually by way of one of the prodigious number of folktales in which he is wont to appear. But the place most closely associated with Kobo Daishi is Koya-san. Here, high among the mountains of Wakayama Prefecture, is the temple complex that has been built around his mausoleum. Depending on your religious persuasion, this is either where the earthly remains of the saint are resting, or it is where he is in deep meditation, awaiting Miroku, the future Buddha. Since Miroku is not due for millions of years, Kobo Daishi still has a fair bit of meditating ahead of him.
As eons-long waiting places go, Koya-san is not unattractive. Kobo Daishi and the two-headed dog that brought him here (you get this kind of thing in stories about the saint) found a lovely spot among the deep, old forests. Ascetics apart, most people take the train here from Osaka, which climbs through the steep mountain folds — with their tucked-away pockets of hamlets and paddies — before reaching the 900-meter-high tableland of Koya-san.
In Edo times, Koya-san’s temples numbered almost 1,000, but fires and typhoons have reduced them to 120 or so, of which about 50 offer accommodation.
You soon learn that staying at a temple is a little different to a business hotel. When I went to check in, I thought the two monks sitting in the office were asleep. But then as I dumped my bags on the floor, the two heads rose synchronously — obviously from meditation — and, still in sync, beamed beatific smiles.
At Koya-san, the one place that everyone has to visit is Okuno-in, where Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum is located. Okuno-in’s most striking building is the Hall of Lanterns, which is rather impressive in a funereal sort of way. Its interior is dominated by more than 10,000 brass lanterns, whose oil lights burn constantly. They cover the ceiling and are also stacked in long racks that extend from the floor to the ceiling across the width of the hall — like great bookshelves in some dusty library of the dead.
The mausoleum is situated within a vast necropolis of more than 200,000 tombs of the once rich and powerful, all of whom decided that proximity to Kobo Daishi wouldn’t hurt in the afterlife. The cemetery stretches over a couple of kilometers — low moss-covered tombs and stupas within the forest of towering cryptomerias.
Okuno-in Cemetery is best seen at night, when the silence is intense, the incense hangs in the air and stone lanterns feebly light the path. An air of mystery invests the place, and with a light mist it becomes downright eerie.
I walked along alone, and for the first kilometer or so I didn’t see another soul. But then I discerned walking toward me what looked to be an old woman, wearing a white shawl and white tabi. As she got closer, I wasn’t able to make out the features of her face, hidden as it was by shadows. I said, “Konbanwa,” and her hooded head just bowed slightly in response. She passed me, and after a few moments I looked back and . . . was rather disappointed to see that she hadn’t spirited away.
As far as evening entertainment in Koya-san goes, well, the spooky graveyard is pretty much it. I persuaded the monks to serve my dinner a little later, and so I had that to look forward to. The shojin ryori (Buddhist vegetarian fare) they prepare is a sublime creation that manages, without meat, fish, onions or garlic, to produce dishes that are subtle, intricate and utterly delightful. It is hard to imagine even the most dedicated carnivore hankering afterward for a Big Mac.
What is difficult, though, is getting up for the temple’s “morning service,” which, unfortunately, doesn’t come with coffee and buttered toast. The service starts at 6 a.m. and consists of long mantras (of which I understood not a word) delivered in an unvarying drone to the occasional sound of a small gong. After about three minutes, you’ve got the general idea. But the service drags on for an hour. At one point, I glanced at a couple from New Zealand sitting by the door, they glanced at me, and all three of us were thinking how much nicer it was back on the futon.
On Koya-san’s main street — starting with Kongobuji Temple, the central monastery — the temples come as thick as convenience stores in Tokyo. Monks account for a quarter of the town’s population, and at first the religiosity seems stifling. But then you spot the holes in the holiness. I entered the office of the temple where I was staying and saw a young monk with his head bowed. I assumed he was meditating, but then I noticed him slyly pushing a Game Boy under the table. After I checked out, I saw another monk leaving a liquor store, toting a bag full of beer.
Koya-san seems healthier for such instances of normality. For a long time, the place carried more than a whiff of exclusivity. Women were not allowed until 1872. In Okuno-in Cemetery, you don’t notice too many tombs of the hoi polloi.
Before leaving, I walked to Daimon, the main gate to Koya-san. Around it is a large open space, and there three boys were practicing baseball, with the immense vermilion gate as a backdrop. I’d like to think that genial Kobo Daishi would take more pleasure in his temple grounds being used this way — rather than to house the tombs of the moneyed hordes eager to huddle with him into the hereafter.