The ghosts of Oku-no-in, cemetery and spiritual heart of Mount Koya, have a long time to wait: 5,670,000 years, give or take. According to the scriptures of Japan’s Shingon sect of Buddhism, that’s when the faithful expect the “Buddha of the Future” to arrive in this vibrant mountaintop monastic community. In the meantime, Mount Koya, headquarters of the sect, attracts thousands of adherents and tourists each year.
The faithful come to pray or leave a little ash of a loved one near the tomb of Kukai, the founder, so that they may be present that fateful day. For tourists, the promise of a glimpse into the living traditions of Japan’s rich spiritual history draws many looking for something more than standard temple tourism.
Kukai, whose tomb is the focus of Mount Koya, founded the eponymous monastery in 816 after returning from China as a full master of Esoteric (secretive, magical) Buddhism. Posthumously known as Kobo Daishi (the Great Saint), Kukai was one of Japan’s early geniuses. He was immensely active: dissatisfied with contemporary Japanese Buddhism, he brought back dramatic Esoteric ritual from China and created his own sect, Shingon, affecting Japan’s entire social landscape in the Heian Period (794-1185). He also engineered dams, introduced a new style of calligraphy to Japan, spoke Chinese well enough to compose poetry, and wrote more than 50 books on literature, philosophy and religion. That’s not accounting for his legendary exploits. Apart from the usual starving of oneself on mountain peaks, thousands of folk tales surround his life, ranging from his disputed creation of hiragana and katakana to slaying dragons and throwing his vajra, a ceremonial mace modeled after a lightning bolt, from China, and later finding it in the branches of a pine on Mount Koya. You can still see a young descendant of that pine tree among the temples today, for despite its long history, much of Mount Koya is new.
One of the mountain’s biggest attractions is a stay overnight in such a temple: There are 53 shukubo (temple-inns) in Mount Koya, catering to both pilgrims and tourists and offering an intimate glimpse of a sect renown for its secretive character (Reservations can be made through the Mount Koya Tourist Association at  56-2616, with a night’s stay and two meals costing ¥9,500-¥14,000). What sets shukubo apart from ryokan are the meals: guests are served standard monastic fare called shojin-ryori, consisting of dishes made without meat, fish, onions or garlic. Dishes can include vegetable tempura, koya-dofu (dried tofu), assorted vegetable hot pots, or soup with balls of nama-fu (wheat gluten). The most famous dish on Mount Koya is goma-dofu: a tofu-like dish made with sesame seeds and potato starch, which is strikingly rich against the background of light vegetables.
The best part of a stay at a shukubo is joining the ceremonies held there. Activities may include meditation, sutra copying, making prayer beads, tidying the temple, or watching the morning ceremony. The fire ritual is perhaps the most exciting: while one monk pounds on a drum and chants sutras, another lights a fire in a hall dedicated to this ceremony and the god Fudo Myo’o, destroyer of delusion. While the flames leap toward the ceiling the monk adds oil, incense, grains, water and rice to the hearth. As the chanting climaxes, the monk strokes the fire with a fan, drawing huge tongues of flame toward him. The fire dies as quickly as it builds, and guests are permitted to approach and pray to the scary-looking statue of Fudo Myo’o. As Kuuki Akihiro, a monk at a shukubo named Eko-in explained afterward, this ceremony symbolizes the conversion of delusion to wisdom.
Oku-no-in tops the list of sights. As you cross Ichi-no-hashi (first bridge) and enter an ancient cedar wood you symbolically cross over into the world of spirits. The valley sides are covered with ancient tombs, most humble but some grand tributes to the powerful. Statues of popular deities such as Jizo or Amida also peer out from behind trees and, when darkness falls, the lanterns are lit and a mist rolls in, their faces may appear more alien than benign.
Although the complex was founded 1,200 years ago, the 117 temples extant today have all been rebuilt over the last few hundred years and are repaired constantly, giving them a bright and homey quality unseen in many historical but decrepit sites across Japan.
In contrast to the quiet cemetery, Kukai’s tomb bustles with activity. Scores of monks chant sutras and others bring his meals; according to Shingon belief, he isn’t dead but in “eternal meditation.” The lantern hall in front of his tomb is unique, for in the place of a statue or central image is a window looking out on the wooden doors of his resting place.
Across town, the Garan District is comprised of the buildings Kukai originally founded. There are three pagodas, the biggest and best of which is the Daito. Inside, Buddha statues and pillars painted with images of bodhisattvas (potential Buddhas) form an unusual three-dimensional mandala, or representation of Buddhist cosmology.
The Kondo (main hall) is the most important building for ceremonies, and the nearby Shinto shrine, built first before any temple, pays tribute to the local mountain deities.
Also nearby is Kongobu-ji, head temple of the sect, notable for the largest sand garden in Japan and beautiful sliding doors painted by members of the illustrious Kano school. It was also the setting for the ritual suicide of Toyotomi Hidetsugu, nephew of powerful daimyo (feudal lord) Toyotomi Hideyoshi, after he was accused of plotting a coup. The Reihokan, or treasure hall, should also not be missed. This museum stores several fine statues, including one of the founder in the center. Unlike later depictions of Kukai, this statue was sculpted by one of his disciples, so is likely the best image of the man who has affected so many lives and will continue to do so, for perhaps 5,670,000 years into the future, give or take a few.
Mount Koya is accessible from Wakayama City via routes 24 and 480, but taking the Nankai-Dentetsu Line, starting from Osaka’s Namba Station, is a better way to enjoy the mountain scenery. The trip costs ¥1,230 and takes about 2 1/2 hours to get to the Mount Koya cable car. It is also possible to take the JR Line via Wakayama City and transfer to the Nankai Line at Hashimoto. For more information on lodgings and other facilities check www.shukubo.jp