Buddhist Mysticism

Trip Start Aug 08, 2006
Trip End Oct 11, 2006

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Saturday, August 12, 2006

KOYASAN, Wakayama Prefecture

Would you like to hear a travel secret about Japan? There is a magical temple town hidden in a dense forest high up in the mountains. It is so off the beaten path that not many foreign tourists have heard of it. But to the Japanese people, it is a very sacred place. It is called Koyasan, a Buddhist temple town sequestered 3,000 ft (900 m) up in a thick mountain forest. To visit Koyasan is to enter into the mystical world of Buddhism.

Founded in 816 AD by the Buddhist monk Kukai, this spiritual town has since prospered as the capital of Japanese Buddhism. With more than 120 temples scattered throughout the magnificent forests, this town has served as a training center for those who want to devote their lives to the tenets of Buddhism. It is not uncommon to walk among monks along the peaceful streets in this town. There are no hotels here; the only accommodations for visitors are ancient temples, where only vegetarian food is served according to the formal Buddhist diet.

This morning, I decided to leave the modern world once more, but instead of heading east, I deviated south. The ride from Osaka's Namba-Nankai Station to Koyasan was a visual enchantment. Leaving the bustling cityscape and heading meridionally for 2 hours, I ingressed into rural Japan, punctuated by verdant rolling hills and beaming rice paddies. The modern train sliced past tall pagodas and temples guarding over the magical landscape. Despite the dense population of this country, one could easily find solitude and tranquility in roughly 30-40 minutes outside of any major metropolis. The ride to Koyasan was not so easy, and one would really need a good command of the Japanese language to undertake this adventure. But upon arriving to Koyasan, one would be deservingly rewarded to a unique spiritual awakening.

Immediately, I sensed that this town was nonpareil from other Japanese towns. Set on a tableland 3000 ft above sea level, one had to transfer to a funicular train after getting off the regular train. The funicular train ran on a railway up the side of a mountain, pulled by a moving cable and was counterbalanced by a descending car. The funicular finally arrived at a small bus stand in Koyasan. All public transportation in Japan was well synchronized to all other types of transport. The funicular train stood waiting for passengers getting off the regular train; likewise, the buses were waiting for passengers exiting the funicular. Everything was so well synchronized that traveling efficiently inside Japan was effortless.

Koyasan could be easily divided into two sections: the transcedental footpath through a forest of towering cedar trees towards the sacred Temple of Okunoin; the other was the impressive Garan Complex comprised of a Japanese garden and numerous pagodas, temples, and shrines. One thing about Japanese religious terminology: Temples denoted Buddhist places of worship while Shrines implied Shinto religious establishments. Pagodas were multistory towers of Buddhism. Koyasan had everything and more as you could see in the pictures.


By 6:30PM, I arrived back to my hotel to get ready to go to a dinner party of my friend Yasushi. I was to meet him at the final subway station in northern Osaka, where we would go together to an izakaya. Izakayas were like Japanese "tapas" restaurants where people would go at the end of the day to have a small bite, drink, and unwind. I was actually 1 hr late, but Yasushi and his friends had already started eating. We had a private room at the back of the restaurant. Before stepping up on the polished wooden linoleum floor leading to our room, we had to take our shoes off and put them in a shoe locker. Then I was led to a shoji paper sliding door, behind which was a fairly large group of his colleagues from work, including his boss. Everyone was sitting on pillows at a low lying table full of food. Yasushi introduced me to his boss with my formal professional title, and we bowed to each other, as I said, "Dozo yoroshiku o-negai shimasu," or "Very pleased to meet you." Everybody was startled, as they realized I could speak some Japanese. In fact, the entire night was a very interesting linguistic and cultural experience for me. I had a chance to practice my Japanese by telling jokes and talking about nonsensical things. We laughed a lot that night. Perhaps it was from the plum sake his boss offered to me, or the countless Japanese beer with roasted chicken and udon noodles. After his boss left, I was led by Yasushi and his friends to a second izakaya. I guess there was nothing better to do on a Saturday night in Japan than "going bar hopping." There, we continued to drink some more and to savor more typical Japanese dishes. The night was special in that I had a deeper glance into Japanese culture than if I had traveled in a commercial tour group. I came back to the hotel late at night, and I tried to get some sleep before leaving the Land of the Rising Sun and arriving in the capital of the Empire of the Dragon tomorrow...
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