Mount Koya, Japan

Sometimes you need to clear your mind. Your usual getaway, to the mountains or the beach, won’t do this time. You need a real escape, where you can reflect, meditate, and even pray, if that’s your sort of thing. Go out of your comfort zone. Try something new. And be ready for a life-changing experience.

Photo: Ekoin Temple
Photo: Ekoin Temple

While traveling through Japan, detour to Mount Koya. This is the center of Shingon Buddhism. More than 100 wooden temples dot the mountainside. Pilgrims have been making the trek for 1,200 years. You no longer have to hike through dense forests to get here, though there are plenty of trails for wandering later. A high-speed train–you’re probably coming from Osaka–winds through narrow mountain and valley passages. Then a cable car chugs up an even narrower and more vertical passage. And a bus will finally deliver you to one of the most sacred places in Japan.

Kongobuji is the main temple in Mount Koya. You’ll hear chanting and smell incense. Don’t miss the enormous rock garden. Stroll through Okunoin, a cemetery filled with cypress trees and the tombs of those resting in eternal meditation. Bow to pay respect upon entering at the Ichinohashi Bridge. Throw water over the Mizumuke Jizo statues and pray for departed family members. And find Ekoin Temple, where monks will welcome you for the evening.

Photo: Ekoin Temple
Photo: Ekoin Temple

Expect simplicity, quiet, and a regimented scheduled at Ekoin. Rooms have tatami floors, and a futon will be brought in later when it’s time to sleep. Ajikan meditation starts in the afternoon. A shojin ryori dinner–Buddhist vegetarian cuisine-is served at 5:30 p.m. Ask for a Kirin beer to accompany your tofu-based dishes. A hot spring bath and a cup of green tea relieve the stress of traveling. Fireflies sparkle in the dark night. And wear layers, the temperatures drop quickly in the mountains.

Morning service comes early, at 6:30 a.m., though the monks were up hours earlier. Breakfast follows a cleansing Goma fire. You’ve barely said a word since your arrival. And despite the heavy mist blocking your view of the gardens, things seem clearer than they have in a long time.

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