Koyasan – Staying in a Buddhist Monastery
There is something about travel that soothes a broken heart. I’m not sure if it’s the change of routine or scenery. Maybe it’s just a reminder of how big the world is and how small we are that helps us to put it all into perspective.
My sister Molly had died about a month and a half before my trip to Japan, and unfortunately, there is nothing but time that will heal a wound like that. But my trip to Koyasan gave me some welcome relief. It was like a breath of fresh air after being under water for four minutes.
Koyasan is a village in the mountains south of Osaka where the Shingon sect of Buddhism is located. You take a funicular car high up into the mountains to get to what is a truly impressive Japanese village of about 3,000 people, a university and 120 temples.
To me, that is a very intriguing combination.
So I took the cable car up the steep slope to Koyasan. Koyasan itself is somewhat touristy with mostly Japanese tourists and the streets were busy with mid-day visitors. I navigated my way to the monastery. It was difficult to find as each place I passed was a monastery.
Once I got out of the center of town, I could see why someone would build 120 temples at this place in the mountains. The sidewalks emptied out and I noticed the huge evergreens beside the road. The street felt still and peaceful. The space between the pines seemed to be stuck in time. The temples stood tall with their huge timbers as though they belonged to the mountain and not to men.
I stayed at one of 52 temples that have typical Japanese lodging. My stay included two vegetarian meals. My room overlooked the garden and was lined with bamboo mats and sliding paper doors. It was the quietest place I have ever been. The bathrooms were typical Japanese shared bath houses and the dining room was separated into sections by sliding doors. You ate seated on the floor with a tray of typical monastery food which is absent of strong flavors like garlic and onions but included soy sauce that had been made and aged by the monks for generations.
We got up at 5:30 in the morning to have prayers with the monks. I remember scraps of this- it was smoky, there were paper lanterns, there was chanting. I was lulled into a stupor. To be honest, I thought that would be my favorite part but after all the travelling I had done the past few days I think I was too tired to fully appreciate the early mornings.
After prayers, I would walk into town for some coffee. This is probably something I wouldn’t have done if I were a little more hardcore into the experience, but I usually needed a pick-me-up. I drank my coffee and wandered through the enormous cemetery on the mountain. This is still one of my most memorable experiences in Japan. The moss-covered stones and shrines stood silently in the woods along the stone path. I wanted to lay down with my back in the dirt and sleep in the silence. I wanted to drift away into the peace of the place around me.
There was something so grounding and so peaceful about Koyasan. It just seemed like everything from sleeping on the bamboo floor to walking in the cemetery brought a sense of connectedness to nature and to peace. It reminded me of something I had heard before, that if you need to ground yourself, you step with bare feet onto bare ground. It made sense from an electrical standpoint so I tried it myself. In Koyasan, it felt like the Earth was bringing me back to ground and I could feel the calm of the trees in the woods.
The same trees the timbers of the monastery were made from seemed to communicate some timeless wisdom above my head as I walked. It felt ancient and it felt calming, like all things would go on as they had before because that was the way life has happened for hundreds of thousands of years and my only job was to be at peace with it.