Multilingual Koyasan wins over foreigners

by Miya Tanaka

Kyodo News

KOYA, Wakayama Pref. (Kyodo) In a dimly lit hall in the sacred Koyasan temple complex, a Swiss-born Buddhist priest joins other monks in reciting sutras in the early morning as foreign tourists watch the solemn 90-minute ceremony with intense interest.

Kurt Genso, 57, whose real name is Kurt Kubli, then invites the visitors into a tatami room for tea with the other monks, and helps the foreigners feel at home by asking them in English where they are from and answering questions about the ceremony or other matters related to Buddhism.

This is no longer a surprising scene at the 1,200-year-old mountaintop Buddhist retreat nestled in Wakayama Prefecture. The temple has seen a sharp rise in foreign tourists since it was registered as a World Heritage site in 2004.

And Koyasan now appears to be reaching out to interact more closely with the visitors, counting on the efforts of non-Japanese who have taken root in the complex, such as the Swiss priest (who simply goes by Kurt), and Japanese monks who can speak English.

Although officials at the sacred site question how far it should adapt to modern society to attract tourism, some people in the town of Koya say foreign tourists sometimes make them rediscover the importance of maintaining the site’s originality.

“In this age, Koyasan will not be Koyasan anymore if we don’t embrace people from outside Japan,” said Shoto Habukawa, chief priest of Muryokoin Temple, to which Kurt belongs.

Koyasan was founded in 816 by renowned monk Kukai as a monastic center for the study and practice of the esoteric Shingon school of Buddhism. Women were barred even from entering the sacred grounds on the 850-meter-high mountain basin until 1872.

But nowadays it has become a popular tourist spot where visitors can not only see the historical properties and rich natural surroundings, but also experience the traditional lifestyle by staying in “shukubo” (temple lodgings), eating “shojin-ryori” (vegetarian food) and joining the daily morning services.

Foreigners who stayed for more than a night in Koyasan jumped to 30,352 in 2007, compared with 10,038 in 2003, when it was not yet on the World Heritage List, according to the town’s world heritage information center.

Many come from Europe, where their religious background often seems to arouse interest in Koyasan, said Toshiki Chahara, head of the center.

Given that Kurt can speak English, French, German, Italian and Japanese, he has played a significant role in promoting Koyasan by guiding foreigners through the area or by attending tourism seminars overseas at the request of Wakayama Prefecture and others.

Reflecting the high interest overseas in Koyasan, Kurt, who came to Japan 11 years ago with his Japanese wife, Mitsuko, 63, said he spends four or five hours a day answering e-mails about Buddhism and other issues.

Kurt admitted that becoming “a PR monk for tourism was maybe not really what I looked for,” but serving as a guide, which he does as often as three or four times a week, is “a modern way to be a Buddhist priest.”

“It can only be a cultural guide, but since we don’t speak about cinema or so, and speak about Buddhist content, you always transmit a Buddhist teaching,” he said.

In Rengejoin Temple, Chief Priest Ryusho Soeda, 61, delivers an English lay sermon in the morning and an explanation for the evening meditation. His mother, Kiyomi, 88, also interacts with foreigners by giving talks during dinner about the history of Koyasan based on her own experiences.

After attending the evening meditation with tourists from San Francisco and Switzerland in late November, Auriel Heavin, 30, from Ireland, said: “It’s definitely something I’d like to do again. I particularly enjoyed the priest’s speaking at the end (about the meaning of the meditation.)”

While foreigners appear to welcome the hospitality offered by Kurt and Soeda, Chahara said that most of the 52 temple lodgings in Koyasan still have a difficult time dealing with foreigners due to language problems and because the town hasn’t made much effort to offer them a more comfortable stay.

But at the same time, he is wary of those lodgings that try to attract foreigners by providing rooms with private baths and toilets, which allow them to skirt use of the more common communal bath.

“Such a move runs counter to how temple lodgings should be,” Chahara said. “Shukubo has originally been created for people who came to Koyasan to offer prayers, and is not a hotel.”

Rengejoin’s Soeda said his temple had once considered offering coffee and bread instead of shojin-ryori, but foreigners made him realize that was not necessary.

“Some say that by staying in the temple, eating shojin-ryori in a room with ‘fusuma’ (sliding paper) doors, and sleeping on futon makes them feel that they have been embraced by Japanese culture, rather than being just an observer of it like they felt in Kyoto or Nara,” Soeda said.

“We gained confidence about our original style through the eyes of the foreigners,” he added.

Meanwhile, Chahara welcomes places besides temples that are also taking on an international flavor.

A vegetarian “international cafe” run by Takeshi Tsuge, a 32-year-old Japanese who can speak Chinese, French, Italian and English, and his French wife, Veronique, 30, is popular with foreigners.

The couple started the cafe on the main street around three years ago, ending a vagabond life spent earning a living by playing music on the streets.

Veronique said she hopes the cafe will give foreigners a feeling that “they have come home” and that raising the number who visit Koyasan will make Japanese rediscover the attraction of the mountain.

While the town hopes to attract more foreign tourists, Kurt indicated that simply having people with the ability to speak other languages will not mean they will be able to respond to their needs — which he says is often to gain more knowledge about Buddhism rather than historical trivia about Koyasan.

“Japanese monks do learn how to make a ceremony for a full service and so, but much more time is needed to be able to explain Buddhism correctly and understandably,” Kurt said. “It’s a challenge for Koyasan to develop monks who are also able to explain Buddhism to the people.”