Friday, 23 March 2012

The Sacred Sites of Koyasan

While in search of the definitive traditional Japanese experience, friends had told us of a place only a few hours away from Osaka that attracts visitors from all over the world yet remains unspoilt by commercialism. The place is Mt. Koya (or ‘Koyasan’ as it is known locally) and is the most sacred of places for the followers of the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism. Perched so high in the mountains that you need to catch a cable car to get there, the tiny town consists of over 100 unique temples that are justifiably listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. So, on a sunny day on the last day of winter, Jules and I joined the steady stream of pilgrims who were following the route around sacred temples and monuments dating back to 819 AD.

An indication of the depth of history associated with this place became obvious as we trekked the path toward Okunion Temple. Here, amongst towering cedars that are several hundred years old, is a sea of ancient monuments and tombstones of various shapes and sizes. In fact there are some 200,000 of them covering the landscape; some grand and imposing, others inconspicuously blending into the foliage. As Jules and I both noted, walking through here provided a very different atmosphere than any western style graveyard we had visited. Perhaps it was the randomness of the monuments or neutrality of the colours that allowed them to discreetly blend into the environment over time. In any case, the walk was particularly tranquil and certainly provided us with many photographic images along the way. Crossing Gobyonohashi Bridge, we caught sight of the Torodo Hall (the hall of lamps) and following a crowd of pilgrims, we venture around the back to Kobo Daishi’s Mausoleum. There was quiet chanting and the smell of incense in the air. This is indeed a very sacred place, as Kobo Daishi (774–835) was the founder and grand master of the Shingon Buddhist sect and it is here that followers believe that he remains in a state of eternal meditation. At this point we both wished that we understood Buddhism a little better.

The next day we joined yet more groups of pilgrims (recognisable by their all white outfits and traditional conical hats called a ‘sugegasa’) and headed down the road toward Garan, Koyasan’s central temple compound. Here, within a relatively small area, seven major temples were built during various centuries during the life of the sect. As the pilgrims systematically paid homage to each and every building with chants, prayers and monetary donations, we chose to quietly wander around the site with camera in hand. In the centre of the compound was Kondo Hall, an impressive ceremonial wooden temple, but the jewel in the crown was the Konpon Daito Pagoda. Standing some 45 metres tall, this bright orange wooden temple remains testament to the design and construction skills of traditional Japanese craftsmen. While being intricately detailed, it retains a certain level of traditional simplicity that continues to be admired by many visitors to this region.

As we stood there in admiration of this amazing collection of temples, five monks in ceremonial robes approached, intent upon paying homage to each of the shrines; a task that has been undertaken daily for many centuries. In fulfilling their regular duty they were also providing us with one of those memorable moments that can only be experienced when you make the effort to visit such a remote yet culturally significant location. Much like a scene from a bygone era, their simple ritual revealed an aspect of traditional Japan that is becoming increasingly harder to find and certainly one we have been searching for in our travels beyond the city.

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