It was while I was going through the lengthy process of preparing for a new photography book on sacred sites in Asia that I came across the name Koyasan. A forested region south of Osaka; with eight peaks enclosing a high, lotus-shaped valley; home to more than a hundred temples and headquarters of the Koyasan sect of Shingon Buddhism, founded by a charismatic monk who entered eternal silence in 835 and is, in the eyes of his devotees, still in meditation. Now that sounded like a story, and I hardly hesitated to fit it into my next trip to Japan.
There was another attraction: shukubo. This is the name for traditional lodgings at a temple, something I had never experienced. In Koyasan—part of the Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range on the UNESCO World Heritage List—almost half of the temples offer this to visitors. If you love Japanese inns, or ryokan, as I do, the temple equivalent has much to recommend it. Not only is it less costly (I once stayed at the eye-wateringly expensive, though exquisite, Tawaraya in Kyoto, doyen of all ryokan) but it also offers the opportunity to attend early morning prayers and sample shojin ryori, or vegetarian Buddhist cuisine. This includes the unique local freeze-dried tofu called koyadofu and, which you might not expect from temple accommodation, a choice of beer or sake.
It was August when my coordinator/translator and I drove from the nearby Shinto shrine complex in Ise up the mountain road and checked in at one of the smaller temples, Ichijo-in. Our spacious tatami room had sliding screen doors that opened on to an exquisite garden.
We walked and photographed until sundown, and were up again for more early the next morning. But we left that same day—after a conversation with the priest at our temple. As soon as he learned about my book project, he simply said, ‘If you really want to experience Koyasan for its Buddhism, don’t waste time with all these tourists. (There were indeed busloads of Japanese day trippers.) Come back in the middle of winter. You’ll see how different it is then.’
Six months later we returned, to the depths of February snow and silence. Now it felt like a temple community, embedded in cedar forests. Koyasan’s founder, the monk Kukai, chose the retreat for its lotus shape, and established here his Shingon (‘true word’) sect of Esoteric Buddhism.
Years earlier, in 804, he and another monk, Saicho, sailed to China as part of a government-sponsored expedition. On their return, each went on to found a Buddhist sect. Saicho was first to find favor with the Imperial Court when he returned in 805, a year before Kukai.
However, it was ultimately Kukai who prevailed, under the all-important sponsorship of a succession of emperors. Less well known is that Kukai—and Saicho, it is believed—brought back tea seeds from China, where the drink was used in monasteries to aid long nights of meditation, and that he did more than anyone to establish tea drinking at court.
Emperor Saga wrote this poem on Kukai’s return to his mountain retreat on Koyasan:
Long years have passed; yours in the Way, mine in worldly life.
I am fortunate to speak with you this autumn,
Drinking fragrant tea until late.
Painful though the parting may be, I bow to you as I see you off to the distant clouds.
Before sunrise, I slipped, shivering, from my futon to photograph a fire ritual. Later, I walked past a massive cemetery surrounded by cedars to the most sacred part of Koyasan, Okuno-in. The mausoleum here is where, almost 1,200 years ago, Kukai entered into eternal silence.
I waited outside the temple kitchens as flurries of snow spun around the trees, until three monks stepped out, two of them carrying a karahitsu, a wooden box suspended from a carrying pole. I accompanied them up the long flight of stone steps and we stepped inside. Here, still wearing cloth masks so as not to defile the food with their breath, they unpacked dishes of shojin ryori to place before their founder, as generations of monks have done since Kukai entered samadhi, the state of permanent meditation and stillness.
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Photos: Hero image: Getty Images; body images: Michael Freeman