In 804, Japan's most celebrated priest, Kukai (posthumously known as Kobodaishi) sailed to China to study Tantric Buddhism under Priest Keika in Chang'an returning two years later at the age of 33 with a 'master title' to spread the Shingon (true word) sect of Buddhism. Koyasan was founded as a religious retreat in 816 by Kobodaishi on land granted to him by Emperor Saga. At the age of 62, Kobodaishi started his eternal meditation in the cave of Okunoin on March 21, 835. According to legend, monks who have attended to his grave claim that his body is still warm to the touch. He is waiting for the coming of Miroku, the Future Buddha, who will help lead the faithful to salvation.
There are currently 117 sub-temples, two monasteries and the Okunoin Temple on Koyasan. I spent a night at Ekoin Temple which was one of the closest Temples to the cemetery path leading to Okunoin. My initial reason for making the trek out to Koyasan (which isn't on many other itineraries) was to seek some spiritual connection to my parent's faith. But by the time I reached Koyasan, my attitude towards temples was already at a breaking point. I had my fill of them in Kyoto and the ones on Koyasan all looked pretty much the same.
It was interesting living in one for the night though. My favorite aspect of the room was the verandah which provided a great view of the garden. Unfortunately on the day I got there, it was pretty cloudy and the next day was filled with rain. I'm sure it would've been spectacular on a sunny day. The shojinryori dinner and breakfast were surprisingly good and a wonderful change from the carbo-loaded meals I had been consuming up until that day.
The next morning we woke up at dawn to attend morning prayers. I assumed it was going to be a large hall where all the monks at the temple gathered to pray. Instead it was just two priests conducting prayers. It was interesting for about five minutes then my knees and rear started screaming at me to move around so the blood would flow again. After the morning prayers, we were led across the courtyard to a small building which housed yet another altar and a few statues.
The fire ceremony that followed was pretty interesting but not on the same scale as the ceremony depicted in the video below. The priest while chanting feeds the fire with various oils, seeds, cedar sticks (with wishes or prayers written on them). The belief is that the smoke carries the wishes and intentions upward to Fudo Myo-o who along with Jizō are well represented in the cemetary leading to Okunoin.
Instead of taking the bus from the stop in front of Ekoin Temple, I walked towards the center of town passing a few more temples. One of the more interesting design features are the requisite gates with very ornate wooden carvings on both sides and above the entrance. The weathering that has occurred over the years left the wood with a very soft look which appealed to me, do you know how much sanding and oil you would have to apply to get the wood to look that soft?
Okunoin is the temple where Kobo Daishi (Kukai), the founder of Shingon Buddhism and one of the most revered persons in the religious history of Japan, rests in eternal meditation. It is considered one of the most sacred places in Japan.
Okunoin is surrounded by Japan's largest graveyard. People from all over Japan, who wished to be buried close to Kobo Daishi, lie there, including former feudal lords, politicians and other prominent personalities. Their graves line the approaches to Okunoin for several hundred meters through the forest.
The number of graves in Okunoin is impressive, I've seen quotes of 200,000 - 500,000 for the cemetery which includes stone carvings, shrines, tombstones and of course, the space rocket. Yes you read that correctly. In one section of the cemetery south of the Tama-gawa bridge, companies maintain plots for past employees. That explains the space rocket and though I wasn't on the look out for it, there are supposed to be 'letter boxes' on some monuments for company employees to leave their business card. A way for them to say they called or to request spiritual aid from a former colleague.
One of the most loved divinities in Japan, Jizō is traditionally seen as the guardian of children though he is also believed to be the protective deity of travellers and firefighters. On many of the statues of him, he is seen wearing tiny children's clothing or bibs. Parents usually place these on the statues to protect their children, or late-children. This is also why representations of Jizō sometimes make him more babylike, resembling the children he protects.
Though I wasn't too impressed with my experience in Koyasan, if you want to give it a go, it's easily accessible from Osaka or Kyoto (about two hours). For a temple stay, send an email to email@example.com. I ordered the larger dinner meal (recommended) so the total for my one night stay came out to ¥12000. Pricey but for you devotees, probably a worthwhile experience.