Getting holy in Wakayama

by Mariko Yasumoto

Since ancient times, pilgrims have ventured into heavily forested mountains in Wakayama Prefecture to visit Koyasan, the headquarters of the Shingon sect of esoteric Buddhism. This is regarded as one of the most sacred places in Japan, lying in an alpine basin at an altitude of about 800 meters, and it attracts more than 1 million worshippers and tourists every year.

Admiring the awe-inspiring monastic buildings and outstanding natural beauty there, you will see why Koyasan is loved by so many people and why it was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List last July.

Legend has it that more than a thousand years ago — at a port in Ningbo, China — Kukai (later to be known as Kobo Daishi) threw a sankosho (a symbolic Buddhist pestle), which had been given to him by his master Keika, into the sky toward the east, with a wish that it would land in the ideal place for him to begin preaching Shingon Buddhism. On returning to Japan, Kukai looked for the sankosho and finally found it hanging on a pine tree in Koyasan in the year 816. After more than 1,200 years, the pine tree is still revered by monks and visited by many tourists daily.

The pine tree has a bundle of three needle-shaped leaves, just like the sankosho, which has three prongs at each end. The tree stands tall in front of Konpon Daito, a 48.5-meter gorgeously colored pagoda situated in Danjo Garan, an area that hosts many seminaries for esoteric practices. In Garan, the chances are fairly high that you will come across ascetic monks reciting Buddhist sutras.

Across a large parking lot from Danjo Garan is Kongobuji, which is the official headquarters of some 3,600 Shingon Buddhist temples in Japan. The original temple of Kongobuji was built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598) in memory of his mother.

The gorgeous paintings on sliding doors in the temple’s rooms must be seen. The paintings include those from the famous Kano painting school from the Edo Period (1603-1867). The doors in the Yanaginoma (Willow Room) are decorated with the painter Kano Tansai’s depictions of willow trees. Warrior Toyotomi Hidetsugu (1568-1595), who was exiled to Koyasan on orders from his uncle Hideyoshi, committed seppuku (ritual suicide) in this room.

Beautiful pink rhododendron are in full bloom in the inner-court area in early summer, and you can also admire Japan’s largest rock garden, which measures 2,340 sq. meters. The shape of the rocks represents a pair of dragons emerging from a mass of clouds.

Another must-see spot in Koyasan is the Okunoin Cemetery, which is in dense forest to the east of the city. Inside the cemetery is Kobo Daishi Gobyo, a mausoleum where Kobo Daishi — Kukai’s posthumous honorific name — rests in eternal meditation.

Lining the 2-km approach are some 300,000 tombstones, including those of historically important figures, such as Oda Nobunaga and Takeda Shingen, both feudal warlords from the Sengoku Period (1467-1568).

The path toward the mausoleum is shrouded by hundreds-of-years-old giant cedar trees, which add to the tranquil spirit of the cemetery.

Okunoin’s tallest tombstone — at 10 meters high — marks the grave built for the wife of Tokugawa Hidetada (1579-1632), the second Tokugawa shogun, and it is believed that it took as long as three years to build it.

The interior of Torodo (the Lantern Hall), located at the end of the approach, just short of Gobyo, is illuminated by about 20,000 lanterns of various sizes.

You can take a different route to leave, heading toward the Nakanohashi parking lot. You will see modern gravestones on this path, including corporate graves such as a coffee cup-shaped stone for UCC Ueshima Coffee Co. or a television-shaped one for Sharp Corp. But the strangest gravestone must be the one built by a termite exterminator to console the spirits of white ants. It says “White Ants. Rest in Peace.”

If you want to stay here, then lodging is available at 53 of the 117 temples in the Koyasan Basin.

At such shukubo, tourists can enjoy the traditional vegetarian diet of monks. Goma-dofu (sesame bean curd) and Koya-dofu (freeze-dried bean curd), both local specialties, are especially worth a try.

Guests can also experience Ajikan meditation at some shukubo temples. Ajikan is a meditation method of Shingon Buddhism, practiced in a leg-folded sitting position.

When checking out shukubo Web sites, you might be surprised about the temples’ commercial approach, as one would like to believe that such a spiritual place as Koyasan should avoid such influences.

But today’s shukubo management dates back to the Nanboku-cho Period (1336-1392) or Muromachi Period (1392-1573), at a time when a huge number of pilgrims were traveling to Koyasan.

Around 1400, the Koyasan management prohibited shukubo temples from aggressively touting pilgrims from the Kyushu and Chugoku regions by operating checkpoints (sekisho). Some shukubo temples were using bribes to attract pilgrims.

“This illustrates a severe battle among Koyasan temples over regional supremacy at that time,” said Yasunori Koyama, a professor at Tezukayama University who specializes in Japanese medieval history. “Apparently, shukubo management has been a huge financial resource for Koyasan.”

Some shukubo temples also used to negotiate to decide which shukubo would accommodate which noble or shogun family, and such rights were often traded between temples. The tradition still remains at some shukubo, according to Koyama.

Koyasan is a unique Buddhist town. For those who love esoteric Buddhism (mikkyo), visiting this place is a must. For those who don’t know much about it, this is still well worth a visit. And Koyasan is just two hours by train from central Osaka.