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Rowdy tourists and grumpy monks of Mount Koya could do with a dose of Kukai’s wisdom

by David Allegretti

Contributing Writer

The cold chill of mountain air hits me as I step off the bus and make my way through the imposing temple gates of Eko-in on Mount Koya.

It’s 10 a.m. and the sun is still hiding behind clouds and mist as I poke my head through the temple’s reception area, where two monks are seated cross-legged on the ground, filling out paperwork at a knee-high table.

“Ahh, you must be here to see Nobu,” one says upon noticing me. “He will be with you soon. In the meantime, please have a seat.”

He motions me to a small room equipped with a few laptops, a flat-screen television and state-of-the-art coffee machine, which, to my surprise, spurts out the best coffee I’ve had in weeks. I bypass the waiting area and instead light up in the nearby outside smoking area. I sit on wooden steps overlooking the temple’s inner courtyard, take a drag of my smoke and watch serenity jostle with modernity.

A light breeze rustles the large trees of the temple’s inner garden. I watch the dead leaves shiver in the wind; one by one they break off and float down into the adjacent pond. To the left is the temple car park. A family of tourists has just arrived and are unpacking their belongings and taking selfies.

I observe for a while, before tiring of the scene and pulling out a brochure I had picked up at Koyasan Station. “Koya-san was founded by the great Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi as the center for Shingon Buddhist training,” it reads, using the Japanese term for the mountain range in Wakayama Prefecture. “His wish was to establish a monastery deep in the mountains. He wanted it far from worldly distractions where Buddhist monks could practice and pray for peace and the welfare of the people.”

Kobo Daishi, as the monk Kukai is posthumously known, was granted use of the range by Emperor Saga in the year 816. At a time of great internal conflict in Japan, Koya was to be a peaceful mountain respite from the instability below — a place for Kukai and his followers to pray for peace and prosperity for all of Japan. To understand the man is to understand the true significance of the mountain.

As a teenager, Kukai left his home for the capital, Nara, to further his spiritual studies, only to grow disillusioned with some aspects of the establishment. He spent most of his 20s as a wandering monk, traveling from temple to temple in his pursuit of ultimate truth.

The Japanese government of the time imposed tight regulations on Buddhism, meaning independent monks such as Kukai were akin to outlaws. He was still considered a pariah when he departed Japan for China in 804 to study the Mahavairocana Tantra, an ancient Sanskrit Buddhist text. In China, Kukai studied and subsequently mastered Esoteric Buddhism in a matter of months, a feat that should have taken two decades.

Kukai returned to Japan two years later as the eighth patriarch of Japanese Esoteric Buddhism, or Shingon, eventually founding the sacred site of Mount Koya, where he would ultimately pass on in 835, in his early 60s. Over the years, gravestones of his followers were erected on the land surrounding his mausoleum. As the centuries went on, the graveyard surrounding Kukai’s eternal resting place grew, with thousands of people, including feudal lords and prominent monks, choosing to have their tombstones erected there as a way of being close to Kukai even in death.

The mountain graveyard, Okuno-in, is now Japan’s largest cemetery, with more than 200,000 graves. In the centuries following his death, followers of Kukai would make the trek up the mountain to pay their respects. Due to the remoteness of the site, temples would open their doors to pilgrims and offer lodgings — a tradition that continues to this day.

These days, visitors usually take a series of trains, buses and finally a cable car to scale the mountain. They do not arrive on a spiritual quest, but at the counsel of TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet, lured by the promise of the perfect Instagram pic.

This may not be a completely fair assessment. There are genuine pilgrims here, or at the very least tourists who are sincerely interested in paying some form of respect to the sacred land. However, among the barrage of group photos, beer vending machines, souvenir shops and soft-serve ice creams, it’s hard to spot them.

The Konpon Daito pagoda on Mount Koya
The Konpon Daito pagoda on Mount Koya | ALFRED FILMER

More tourists, more bad apples

A cheerful monk arrives and sits next to me, introducing himself as Nobu. At 33, he is younger than I expected. We sit for a while and speak of the beauty of the mountain. Nobu spends some time explaining that the mountain is a natural power spot, before inviting me inside to continue the conversation.

Nobuhiro Tamura is the archdeacon at Eko-in — currently the No. 1-rated temple on TripAdvisor. He has been with Eko-in for eight years, and during this time has witnessed the numbers of Japanese visitors drop while foreign arrivals have risen dramatically. According to figures released by Nankai Railway, Koya received 70,000 foreign visitors in 2016, 14,000 more than the 56,000 that visited in 2015. Back in 1970, that figure was 131.

Nobu says the foreign influx can be attributed to three factors: the construction of Kansai International Airport, followed by Mount Koya being listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004 and finally the rise of the internet, with websites such as TripAdvisor and apps like Instagram spawning an insidious new subset of traveler — one whose aim is to check a place off a list before quickly scuttling off to the next five-star experience.

This isn’t my first time visiting Koya. For the most part I have observed people to be respectful, though the old bad-apples trope holds true. It’s hard to ignore the obnoxious loud mating call of the oblivious foreign intruder amid the stillness of the small mountain town. And, with sheer tourist numbers only increasing, so too does the probability of bad apples.

And then comes the issue of supply and demand. Tourists want souvenirs, tourists want convenience. And so a wander through the once-sacred town becomes a walking tour of the same old heavenly trinkets being sold store by store. Rows of plastic Buddhas and novelty chopsticks interrupted only by vending machines catering to most vices.

A monk at Ekoin attends to foreign visitors.
A monk at Ekoin attends to foreign visitors. | KYODO

Would Kukai have used Wi-Fi?

Earlier that morning I had spoken to 62-year-old Jorgen. Traveling solo from Norway, this was his second trip to Koya.

“The place is beautiful, but the monks were not what I expected,” he said. “Actually, most of them were quite rude, if I’m honest. It looked like they were annoyed at having guests.

“I can see why they would not be too happy with some of the way people act,” he conceded. “I don’t think they like how disrespectful some tourists are.” Jorgen went on to express his disappointment upon seeing the television in his room and Wi-Fi accessibility throughout the temple he had stayed in, a standard at most temples nowadays.

This sentiment was echoed by 26-year-old Emma, another guest of Eko-in, traveling from Australia.

“For me the TV in the room kind of killed it a bit. We just didn’t need to have it — I’m sure you can last one night without a TV,” she said.

I ask Nobu what he thinks of Jorgen and Emma’s comments. He pauses for a moment.

“I know the typical impression foreigners might have,” he says finally. “Some foreign people think it is very strange. They’ll say to me, ‘Why do you have a TV? Why do you have Wi-Fi?’ … Why? Because it’s convenient — why not use it?”

Not completely satisfied with this answer, I gently probe Nobu further: Would Kukai watch television and use Wi-Fi if he were alive today?

This time Nobu is quicker to respond.

“I think so. Definitely. Kobo Daishi went to China to study Sanskrit as there were no teachers in Japan. But who knows, perhaps if there was an online course he would not have made that journey … maybe,” he says with a laugh.

And what of the rudeness of some of the monks, an observation that was almost universally shared by visitors I interviewed in the lead-up to my arrival on the mountain? Nobu says that a lot of the older monks are openly annoyed at the influx of outsiders, but are stuck begrudgingly catering to foreign visitors’ needs, as their livelihood depends on it.

“That’s a very sad thing,” Nobu says, speaking of the behavior of some older monks. “They are very arrogant, kind of, because in the old days they would just sit in the mountain and a lot of Japanese people would come and visit and donate some money — you know, in exchange for prayers.” He trails off, and for a moment there is some light tension in the air.

“We have different ways here” at Eko-in, he eventually says with a smile. He then leans in and whispers: “Some temples, they have no hospitality. They just put four or five people in a small room and say, ‘Hey, you, sleep here in a dirty bed.’ And that’s because they are a bit annoyed. For some older monks to welcome foreign people, it’s kind of a shocking thing.”

In a way, Nobu says, some of the monks of Koya have lost their way.

“Kobo Daishi said that everything can be practice. To welcome guests, to talk to guests, to communicate with people who are from another world — this is all practice,” he says. “Some of these monks have been here for so long that they have forgotten good manners and hospitality. They don’t travel, they just stay on the mountain.”

Even Kukai would divide some of his time between Koya and Kyoto, Nobu says: “So he was balanced. And we should be like this as well, I think.”

I spend hours speaking with Nobu, who seems to me the exemplar of this aforementioned balance. In his younger days he studied English in Manchester and lived what he describes as the typical student life.

“I always went out, I wasn’t a monk then,” he says with a cheeky grin. As he shows me around the temple grounds, I gain small insights into his life. He wakes before the sun, prays, looks after the daily running of Eko-in, and spends his free time reading, practicing sutras and playing basketball. He even has Facebook. “But I don’t really post,” he explains. “I use it to connect to people. It’s easier than giving an email address.”

Nobuhiro Tamura leads visitors on a night tour of Okuno-in.
Nobuhiro Tamura leads visitors on a night tour of Okuno-in. | KYODO

Ignorance is not malice

That afternoon, after an illuminating conversation with Nobu and acquainting myself with the grounds and a few of the other monks, I retire to my room. It’s big, comfortable and aesthetically beautiful, with a balcony overlooking the garden.

I glance at the flat-screen TV and smile to myself. My day with Nobu had placed me in an oddly forgiving mood. After all, who am I to judge? I post pictures of my travels to Instagram. I like beer and ice cream. Have I jumped the gun and judged the supposed inauthentic traveler too harshly?

Earlier I had asked Nobu if some people are just bad eggs from birth, or if it’s a question of nurture, or a lack thereof, that leads to evil. He answered by opening up to a page of a small book containing some of Kukai’s teachings, translated into English by Nobu himself, and reading a passage aloud: “Nothing has a definite nature, so people cannot be purely evil. Even so-called evil people will aspire to follow a moral path when they feel a sense of community.”

The conversation spawned further insight into the bad behavior of tourists. Here’s the gist of it, according to Nobu: People, for the most part, are just trying their best. Most of the disrespectful behavior stems from a lack of education. Most tourists are simply unaware of the offense caused by roaming the streets drunk or taking photos of sacred sites where photography is prohibited. And Nobu believes unruly behavior should be dealt with in the same way as evil behavior.

By Nobu’s account, what we call “evil” stems from disillusionment, from alienation — a sense of disconnectedness from community. The feeling of being alone can fester darkness in some. Nobu believes the best way to stamp it out at its larval stage is to foster a sense of togetherness.

“Nothing has a definite nature,” he says. “Everything changes shape — water becomes ice, water becomes steam … you know, now you look like this, but you used to be a baby.” In this way, loud, drunken tourists with selfie sticks and ice cream cones will not always be so. And the same goes for the grumpy monks.

Hitomi Wada, from the Koyasan Shukubo (temple lodging) Association, agrees. She suggests that the tension between some of the older monks and foreign guests stems not from malice but rather, language barriers.

“They cannot speak English,” she says, referring to the older monks, “so it is difficult to behave friendly to foreign guests. And it is very difficult to solve this issue … we have not found the solution.”

Nobu, however, believes the problem can be tackled through education.

“In our temple, we have this book we show guests before they check in here. Just two pages. It’s about (wearing) shoes inside, and other things that are disrespectful — you know, just small things, because when these little rules are broken most of the time it’s a mistake and we just laugh here, because we are used to it. But at some other temples the monks get annoyed easily — sometimes instantly. It is rude hospitality,” he says.

Cut grumpy monks some slack

The next morning, I wake before dawn and trek through Okuno-in to Kukai’s mausoleum. I sit and watch the sunrise and reflect on the conversations I have had with the monks throughout my time at Eko-in.

The general consensus was more or less the same: Yes, sometimes the behavior of tourists can be frustrating, but to judge and act out is not the solution — and the monks that do so have lost the way of Kukai. For the most part, the modern monks of Mount Koya look on at tourists leaving their shoes on and taking photos where they are not supposed to with an air of benevolence. This behavior comes from ignorance, not malice. They know not what they do.

As for the grumpy monks, it’s hard not to cut them some slack. Mount Koya is now a hot tourist attraction, and spending the night at a temple is listed in virtually every Japan guidebook as a must-do. Their mountain is becoming more cosmopolitan, and their instinctively protective responses to this rapid change can be forgiven. After all, even Kukai suffered from momentary bouts of being human.

I turn to page 37 of the book of Kukai’s wisdom Nobu gave me: “Although it is said that it is impossible to be disturbed by anything upon reaching enlightenment, I could not help but cry upon bidding farewell to a loved one.”

Beyond Omotenashi (hospitality) is an occasional series looking at issues surrounding the influx of foreign tourists to Japan.

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