Even with its convenience stores, souvenir outlets, tour buses and boutique coffee shops, Mount Koya might be modestly alluded to as a Japanese Lhasa. There is no living being, of course, who embodies the doctrines of a religious order such as the Dalai Lama, but in the person of the saintly priest Kukai, who founded the temple complex in 816 as the center of the Tantric Buddhist sect known as Shingon Mikkyo, the mountain top finds an ecclesiastical figure of compelling and charismatic force.
A remarkable man — a gifted calligrapher and scholar — it’s not difficult imagining Kukai as a mendicant monk, wandering through this mist filled mesa. In contrast to today’s pilgrim, decked out in crisply laundered and ironed apparel, all effort circumvented or accelerated by modern amenities such as buses, Kukai’s robes would likely have been saturated with damp and filth after months of walking through these forests, co-existing with leeches, snakes, monkeys and wild boar. The Buddha may have befriended animals, turning them into fellow travelers, but common pilgrims would have faced the animosities of the natural world without the benefit of divine protection or wizardry.
The notion of companionship on a spiritual journey is a recurring theme, though, on Mount Koya. Many of the white-clad pilgrims who stream through the town in the direction of Okunoin, a cryptomeria forest that is also a massive graveyard, place of worship, and repository for religious reliquaries, have dōgyō ninin (twin-person group) printed on their clothing, the words expressing the conviction that they are not alone, but making a pilgrimage in the company of none other than Kukai himself.
The faithful who come here to bond with the saint believe that he never really died, at least in the spiritually active sense, that he still meditates, sitting cross-legged, in the position his body was placed at death — in a mausoleum in the deepest recesses of the forest. It’s also possible that his body has crumbled into dust, as all mortals do, along with the cerements worn at death.
The transition from the present to the past, daily to sacred life, takes place in graduated stages. The cable car for the ascent to Mount Koya, cut into the side of the mountain to form a moving observation shelf, is a passage from Japan’s unruly urban mash to a view of tidy, ceramic-roofed village homes, geometrically precise fields and, as the summit is glimpsed, nature reprised in slopes smothered in old growth forest.
It is just a few steps, passing across a small bridge, the Ichinohashi, into the forest-cemetery of Okunoin. Inhaling shredded wisps of incense at the core of Mount Koya is the acrid perfume of Buddhism itself, which compares our short existence to the burning of incense sticks. Here on the mountain, monks pour powdered incense over hot coals.
Lafcadio Hearn believed that the smell, much like Proust’s madeleines, had the power to summon the past, writing that a good deal of his experiences exploring rural Japan were connected in memory with incense, a smell that dogged him as he encountered, “vast silent shadowed avenues leading to weird old shrines; mossed flights of worn steps ascending to temples that molder above the clouds.” This could easily be a description of Mount Koya, where tombs and sarcophagi effortlessly complement differing climatic conditions and moods that are equally memorable in rain (melancholy), snow (purity), filtered sunlight (paradisiac) or damp mists (eerie).
The silence, filtered light, resinous wood smells and moisture of the forest induce a deceleration in pace, as visitor and tourist now transform into pilgrims themselves, pass moldering graves, moss-covered burial stupas and clouds of incense before reaching the Torodo, a temple hung with 3,000 lanterns, burning at all hours. One of the lamps is believed to have been kept alight since it was first lit in 1016; another has been glowing since 1088. Come here early enough in the morning, when gongs are rung and you can witness the conducting of fire rituals. “This is medieval Japan,” Donald Richie once wrote, “a somber place, all greens and earth-colors, suddenly rent by the scarlet of a funeral flag.”
Richie spoke of a “descending balm” experienced by receptive visitors. I found a sanctuary of sorts on the mountain myself, checking into Fukuchi-in, a shukubō, or temple lodging. The reason I chose this inn over many others on Mount Koya, was to see its three gardens, which can only be viewed by overnight guests. Commissioned by the head priest of the temple to design a pond, courtyard and entrance garden, Mirei Shigemori’s work was completed in 1974. An iconoclast who, much to the disapproval of the gardening establishment, favored the use of materials such as cement and tiles in his designs, Shigemori managed to create works that were both contemporary and implacably Japanese.
To privately view these soothing gardens at Fukuchi-in feels like a singular privilege. Not that the lodging was entirely quiet. I expected the temple to be suffused with a hushed silence at all times, but it was a determinedly animated hive of activity. There seemed to be an inversion of tried and tested roles among servants of the temple: monks requisitioned into serving guests meals and making up their futons, and traditional male tasks such as morning cleaning taken over by female contract workers, fast working, middle-aged maids carrying vacuum cleaners from room to room like fire hoses.
If there was an attempt at modest existence in the hushed corridors of the lodging, its inner gardens, and the 9 p.m. re-entrance curfew imposed on guests, there was nothing modest in the dinners served here. Vegetarian dishes, known as shōjin ryōri (temple cuisine), are laid out in the private rooms of guests. The lacquered trays that were placed on the tatami matting for my first meal consisted among other items, of mini-tempura served with a powdered green tea and salt dip, suimono, a simmered soup with hints of plum, yuba, the skimmed surface of boiled soy milk, a mountain vegetable hot pot, spongy strips of rehydrated kōya-dōfu, a local tofu, and slivers of pickle. The refinement of the food, along with the way it was served at a time chosen by guests, led me to conclude that, although the dishes were strictly vegetarian, the food prepared for paying visitors was, in all probability, vastly different from the simple repast consumed by monks and priests on Mount Koya.
In the mountain top town, gray-robed monks are constantly on the move, multi-tasking as guides, couriers, drivers of small vans running errands and somehow even managing to devote time to prayer. One of the largest places of worship here was Kongobun-ji, a Shingon sect temple dating from 816, though the current reconstruction dates from 1863. Its massive dry landscape garden, known as Banryutei, consists of no less than 140 granite stones, which were extracted from Shikoku Island then set in white sand taken from the Kyoto region. A modern design, completed in 1984, the resulting composition symbolizes two dragons in an ocean of cloud, their role to protect the sanctuary and the nearby tomb of Kobo Daishi.
Exposed wooden corridors and decks provide ample viewing points, the structures extending to a rear pavilion with another stone arrangement. Some people may find the garden, the largest stone landscape in Japan, overstated, its rocks lumpy and indelicate. Look a little closer, though, and you will see carefully coordinated site lines and form in what at first appears to be over-assertion. The scale may be overwhelming, but the design is compelling.
Reihokan Museum on the edge of town is another revelation, a treasure trove of beautifully executed Buddhist statues, finely calligraphed sutras and edifying paintings. I wander its corridors and galleries in something resembling, if not enlightenment, at least heightened, benign consciousness.
A passerby, politely suppressing a chuckle, may have noticed an almost anointed look on my face. The collection is a fine instance of powerful art inducing an alternative state of mind, one stripped of distraction. Contemplating the sublime Mandala of Two Realms and its depiction of Nirvana, I feel I had come to the end of my spiritual encounters on Mount Koya — that the time had come to descend.
After this journey into the mystic, one does not easily become a convert to esoteric sects, but it may inspire a change of heart — the desire to attain some version of faith. Others may feel a surge of relief departing from the realm of the dead, inhaling the freshness of the slopes on the airy descent, ridding the incense from their lungs.
Express trains run from Namba Station in Osaka on the Nankai Line to Gokurakubashi Station, where you can connect to a cable car to Mount Koya. This departs every 30 minutes. Buses depart from the cable car terminus for the 10-minute ride into town. Contact the Fukuchi-in temple lodging by phone at 0736-56-2021 or email www.fukuchiin.com/en.