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A visit to the birthplace of the Shingon Buddhist sect in Japan.

I traveled to Mt. Koya, or Koya-san in Japanese, after finishing my visit to Grand Ise Shrine. The overall distance wasnt that great compared to some of the other stretches we'd done so far on this trip, but, the journey nonetheless took several hours due to the nature of the circuitous toll roads and the dangerously narrow, winding mountain roads. Though we left at 11 am, it was only about an hour before the main temple's closing time of 5 pm that we finally reached the top of the mountain and pulled into a parking lot directly infront of the stone steps. With great excitement, I prepared to perform my visit to a place I'd thought about a lot since first learning about it some five months prior - Kongobu-Ji Temple.

This temple was founded in the 8th/9th century by a monk named Kūkai (or kōbō daishi, as he is sometimes called) after his state-sponsored visit to China. At the time that Kukai departed, the Imperial court in Kyoto was under the sway of six main and very powerful Buddhist schools established in Nara. In fact, the emperor had felt so much pressure from these six schools that he made the move from Nara to Kyoto explicitly with the intention of giving himself and the court more independence. When Kukai returned some five years later, however, the six schools of Nara would cease to be a problem. Two new schools - one founded by Kukai, called Shingon Buddhism, and a seconded founded by another monk who'd made the the voyage to China named Saicho, and called Tendai - would quickly eclipse all the other Buddhist sects in the country in power and influence. Kukai himself was a brilliant monk and a great synthesizer of Buddhist doctrines. Thus, while ultimately it was the Tendai sect nurtured by Saicho which would become the more powerful of the two, it was always Kukai's synthesis of the Buddhisms of the time which would underly even the Tendai sect's doctrines in the years to come. For this reason, at least one author has referred to Kukai as the Plato of Japan (in the sense of the famous comment that all of philosophy is just footnotes to the debates Plato established in his Dialogues).

The emperor of the time granted Mt. Heie to Saicho and Mt. Koya to Kukai, as bases on which to build new temples and establish their new, esoteric schools of Buddhist thought. Thus it was that Mt. Koya came to be one of the most famous (if not the most famous) Buddhist temple complexes in Japan. Not only did the Shingon school of Buddhism thrive there until this very day, but, the graveyard in which Kukai was buried became famous all over Japan as the place for pious Buddhists to strive to be buried. As a consequence, the graveyard was full of the resting places of inumerable great Japanese men and women from across the entire history of Japan, leading right up into the modern age. Even the current inscription above Kukai's mausoleum is some poetry written by the Showa emperor himself during a visit to Koyasan in 1980.

Kukai was an esoterist. Myself something of an esoterically inclined, I was very excited to explore the compound. I was not disappointed. What met my eyes upon climbing the first steps were a massive temple, made entirely of wood in the traditional style. The first (and possibly main) altar stood infront of the temple and was easily accessible. The entrance inside the temple was around the corner, however, so I walked around to the back, took off my shoes, and began treading the ancient wooden halls of the temple.

Stone steps leading into Kongobu-ji temple

This beautiful creek ran around the perimeter

After a few steps up, I entered into a corridor of sorts where some monks sat behind glass windows and a sign stood declaring the price for entry. I paid the price and left my Gashuin stamp book with the monks, who passed me a plastic number card that I could return later to pick up the book with its new stamps. Then, I began walking through the blocked-off section of the inner-temple.

Immediately, the first thing I noticed was that the temple design seemed to be split in two parts. The first, a simple wooden corridor that ran along the edge of the entire building, and sometimes connected different temple buildings through a sort of land bridge or tunnel. The second, was room after room (always on the right-hand side) of traditional Tatami-mat seating areas with elaborate frescos painted along the wax-paper (or rice paper?) on the walls around them. I didn't see a single monk during my visit, after the initial monks by the entrance. The entire structure seemed to have been transformed into something of a museum, or a ceremonial hall that was only used at certain times and by certain people for religious functions.

The entranceway, leading into the corridors. Tatami mat rooms are on the right.

A female monk drawing a Gashuin stamp while my friend waits

Some of the art and iconographic items on display (and for sale)

A holy...slab of wood?

Nonetheless, I enjoyed the walk very much. All of the rooms had firm "no photo" signs up. Nonetheless, myself (and the other tourists who'd paid to enter) couldn't resist snapping more than a few photos as we went along. Unlike Ise Grand Shrine, which I could respect the no-photo policy seeing as it was clearly an active place of worship, it was difficult for me to give importance to this no-photo policy since I didn't see any actual worshippers or practicioners during my time there (who might be disturbed by their house of worship being turned into a house of tourism). Quite the opposite, the current function of the temple seemed closer to a sort of exhibit or museum - albeit a very beautiful one.

Many of the paintings along the wall were accompanied by signs explaining the historical significance of the paintings. The two main themes that seemed to persist throughout the temple were Tang-dynasty China, where Kukai had studied, and the life story of Kukai himself, told in peices by various paintings. Different frescos detailed aspects of his autobiography from his journey to China, his apprenticeship with Buddhist monks there, and his return to found the temple in Japan.

An example of the art in the temple

A second example of the art in the tatami-rooms

A sign explaining one of the paintings

Spread throughout the complex were also various Zen sand gardens, immaculately upkept so that the sand made perfect, concentric circles around rocks and trees spread throughout the garden. A wooden tunnel connecting the first structure to a second building revealed an even more elaborate sand garden (the largest I'd yet seen), as well as some more beautiful paintings. Like in the first building, however, the temple seemed to be empty otherwise. Not a single one of the tatami rooms contained anything living persons, and most of them contained nothing at all, aside from the occasional holy relic or artifact.

Corridor connecting the two buildings.

Some of the rocks in the zen-garden beside the corridor

Here you can see both the tree and the rock have circles around them.

The larger zen garden in front of the second building.

Returning to the main temple, I walked along the backside of Kongobu-ji to complete my tour of the building. There were a few more rooms with a few more paintings, a small open garden area, and a hallway containing the remains of Kukai's nephew (or so it claimed). The corridor ended in a large open area that seemed like something of a kitchen, before depositing us back at the main entrance, where I found my Gashuin stamp book waiting for me with a new stamp.

A board explaining the discovery of a tomb in the complex

A smaller garden inside the main building

While the temple was smaller than I'd expected, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Besides - there was no reason to be offput, since another, even more exciting visit was about to follow. After leaving the temple my companions and I departed for the great graveyard at Koyasan, where the Mausoleum of Kukai (and thousands of other great men and women) stood. We were about to visit the resting place of one of the greatest Buddhist monks to ever live.

It took a while to drive through the town, which itself was something of just a massive sprawl of various temples connected to the Shingon sect. I couldn't help but notice the influx of westerners here. Unlike Ise, which had been nearly 100% Japanese tourists, the demographic of tourists at Koyasan seemed to skew heavily toward foreigners and Europeans. They probably came here to partake in the temple stays, I figured. I myself had wanted very badly to do a temple stay, or Shukubo, at Koyasan to have the opportunity to experience some real Buddhist practice. That was before I learned, however, that a single night in the temple cost a minimum of 200$, and well upwards of a 1,000$ depending on the temple and the program. It was no wonder that the financially hardpressed Japanese of the day elected to go elsewhere for their spiritual tourism.

While the high price of the temple stays did leave a little bit of a bad taste in my mouth, nonetheless, I couldn't help but be impressed at the sheer number of temples on Koyasan performing them. It seemed like everywhere I turned there was a temple. I had never seen a more temple-dense location before in my life.

After getting lost once and retracing our steps, finally, we made it to the entrance of the graveyard. Helpfully, there was a free parking lot across the street (I guess charging for entry to a graveyard was a bit too much even for the hardcore capitalists). Crossing the street, the first thing I noticed was a wide cobblestone path lined by stone lanterns on other side. Then, the first field of graves came into view - some of them sporting surprisingly large monuments of different sorts (I saw a Rocketship, for some reason, and many Buddha statues). Then the path curved more and I entered into another clearing surrounded by trees on all sides, and filled with countless, age-worn graves. Almost all of the graves were made of solid stone and covered in thick patches of moss. Some of the structures were so age-worn and moss-covered that they couldn't have been less than centuries old. Standing there in the forest, I truly felt both the age and the awesomeness of the place.

Stone lamps at the entryway into the graveyard

Inside the graveyard (and forest). All of the stone slabs are graves

One of the paths through the graveyard, lined with more stone lamps

Occasionally, mausoleums like this would pop up

Here the path diverged, confusing us for a bit

It took a while to walk through all the graves to arrive at the mausoleums at the back. Considering how the paths diverged and converged at different points, it is almost a wonder I even made it to the tombs at all. However, after a period of confused wandering I immediately knew I was in the right place after seeing a large wooden temple building appear in view. A structure like this could only be for the grave of a great man like Kukai, I immediately thought.

Bridge to the mausoleum area. Set with exactly 37 slabs, representing 37 Buddhist deities

As it turns out, however, I was wrong. The first building was certainly a temple, but, I am not sure to whom it was dedicated. After wandering around the outside of the structure, marveling at the Buddha statues next to it (there were little ladles available for washing the feet of the Buddhas, an act of reverence), and the river running alongside it, I noticed a bridge over the river. On further investigation it turned out that the bridge led to a near clearning, much larger than the first, and to a new building - once again, much larger than the first. I corrected my initial assumptions. I hadn't yet seen Kukai's grave after all. THIS structure, at the very end of the path, was the true mausoleum.

And indeed, on closer inspection it turned out to be exactly that. It was well past five now so the building was closed (I am not sure we'd ever have been let inside, anyways), so we contented ourselves with wandering around the structure. Even on the outside there was much to see, including some minor shrines and the emperor's own calligraphic poetry. The most eye-catching section was at the back, where an altar and several incense and candle stands stood, their smoke twirling into the forest air as birdsong rang out from the forest around. I sat on benches along the back of the building and watched their smoke rise, listening to the sound of the river, the rustling of the trees, and the birds. Once again, I was struck by the feeling that in a Japanese temple, the temple is not actually the wooden building, but everything around that building - nature in all its overwhelming omni-presence.

Path to Kukai's mausoleum

Side view of the Mausoleum

Front view of the mausoleum

Sign explaining the symbolism of the bridge into the mausoleum

I think worshippers paid to have flower put here (look - one of the names is Italian)

Imperial poetry

The sun was beginning to set, and my companions and I still had a long way to go to make it to our hotels that night. After about half an hour of drinking in the temple's atmosphere and enjoying this contact with the great soul that was Kukai, we slowly made our way back down the stone steps and along the path we came. It wasn't long before the stone lanterns at the entrance once again came into view - all of them now lit in preparation for sundown. We seemed to be the last people left in the graveyard. Everything else was closed. With happy, full hearts, we said goodbye to the graveyard and took to the road once again. At the first temple, I had experienced what the Japanese called Aware - that sense of "Ahh", like a contented sigh after a particularly fine meal. At this graveyard, I had experienced Wabi (a sense of oldness) and Sabi (a sense of loneliness) in full. What more could one ask for in a day's visit to Japan?


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