After 2 weeks in Japan, I’ve seen my share of temples and shrines. I’ve decided on a new approach- seeing the sights after 5, when the hoards of tourists and school children are gone. Granted, the sights are often closed after 5, so you will miss the “great lucky Buddha from year 853, carved out of gold, moments after another great bodhisattva found enlightenment during a turbulent time in Japan’s history”… that’s how most of them go give or take a couple of details. I find that the vast majority of what I want to see is usually in the surrounding area. For example, at Nanenji today (head of Rinzai Zen Buddhism) in northwestern Kyoto, I quickly pedaled beyond the crowds (and admission fees) to a trail leading up steps to a magnificent forest glen. This is the Buddhism I like – waterfalls, Buddhas, candles and incense burning in caves surrounded by mossy rock and dripping water. I spent a nice peaceful hour meditating as I’m sure many before me have. I followed that up with a walk through an area called the Philosopher’s walk, an artsy pedestrian only street along a canal. The rest of my day I rode my bike through random streets and alleys, heading through crowded Nishishi market and other area of the city I can’t identify! It reminded me of my trip to Thailand last summer where a group of us took a night-bike tour through the slums and temple areas of Bangkok- it was a spectacular way to see the city – despite missing out on a few golden Buddhas!
Buddhism by night really started two days ago when I over-nighted to Koya-san, taking only a few essentials and leaving my backpack in Kyoto. It felt good to travel with the bare minimum, free to go anywhere, anytime. Mount Koya (Koyasan) is the center of Shingon Buddhism, a Buddhist sect which was introduced to Japan in 805 by Kobo Daishi, one of the most significant personalities in Japan’s religious history. Over one hundred temples stand in the small town on top of the wooded mountain.
After a couple of trains and a cable-car ride to the top, I took a bus directly to the other end of the town, to walk through the forested cemetery. 600 year old cedar trees and mossy gravestones line several km of the cemetery. Japanese, accustomed to a large population in a small space are all cremated and share a single head stone with their family. The legend of this area is that Kobo Daisho is not dead, but waiting in his tomb for Maitreya, the Buddha of the future, and when Maitreya arrives, only Kobo Daisho will be able to interpret his heavenly message. Over the centuries, families have brought ashes or hair from deceased relatives to be close to the tomb to be prepared for this day. I walked around the basement of the tomb and their were millions of miniature Buddhas lined up in a very orderly fashion(all with ashes inside), almost as if in an auditorium. The idea is that they will be all ready to hear the Maitreya’s message through Kobo when it happens.
After walking the cemetery for several hours, I took a nap at my Japanese hostel,and then wandered out for my “Buddhism at Night”. It was fantastic. I stopped at the beer vending machine and wandered the sights. I was almost completely alone – as the hoards had already jumped back on their buses to get home for dinner. I caught an amazing sunset on the west end of town, watching the sun drop between the hazy mountains. It was right there that I knew why so many monks decided this was a holy place. I stumbled upon a strange hut in the forest and it fortunately had an English sign describing it as a hut on part of the Nyoninmichi. This was an ancient trail system for female pilgrims, who for hundreds of years were not allowed inside the city and could only get within a few km of Kobo Daisho’s tomb. The next day I hiked half of the trail ( a loop around the city), and enjoyed some silent meditation in the woods.
I’d put Koyasan on the top of my list of destinations thus far. The center of town was lined with temples, most open and displaying their beautiful gardens. If you have a few $$ to spend, many temples allow you to stay, cook you shojin-ryori (traditional Japanese vegetarian) meals and invite you to participate in morning services.