Time to change. Total change. A Buddhist temple stay with daily 5.30 prayer service should do it. That’s 5.30 am. With vegan-only food – for us dedicated carnivores. And, of course, no other vices such as alcohol or smoking. Some of the temples even had explicit rules about no sex or masturbation – though I don’t know how they police it.
The temple – one of hundreds around, many of which offer accommodation to pilgrims and tourists alike – was beautiful. I’d expected something far more penitential and grim-hostel style, but the building was ancient and lovely, as was our huge, light, tatami-matted room, and the onsen for residents. We even had a television, which felt wrong.
Dinner in the evening was elaborate, and beautifully presented. A mushroom hotpot, fresh cooked on a mini stove at the table; with a wide range of things – some pickled, some squidgy, some crunchy… I still have no idea what most of them were; vegetables I’ve never seen; some tofu-based things; some strange jellyish substances. I suspect they were all excellent, if not all to our taste. After that and a couple of cups of green tea, time for early bed.
Early bed was all the easier as we’d had a long day – we’d rented a car to drive there, as it was meant to be a 2h drive, versus nearly 5h by train each way. But the car’s GPS decided to take us on the scenic route, through insanely narrow, incessantly winding mountain roads – gorgeous, but every corner was blind with no room for oncoming traffic, and our tiny Nissan whined and struggled with every hill. So it wound up taking 4h after all.
So the 5.30am start for prayer service was less painful than normal. The prayers were for peace to the world and harmony for humanity: all denominations welcome, so maybe a dozen of us westerners showed up. It was hypnotic to listen to – the lead monk chanting; the other two joining in harmoniously; occasionally striking a large metal gong; the candles and lamps flickering in the dark room. But 90 minutes was, perhaps, more than enough. We skipped the second morning’s one, as we both firmly believe that our being there made no difference at all to world peace.
Koyasan is the centre of Shingon Buddhism, where Kobo Daishi, who brought the discipline over from China, has been ‘resting’ since the 9th century. All his followers are keen to be buried close by, for when he rises again – so the cemetery, Okunoin, is enormous, with over 200,000 graves and shrines gathered over the millennia. And it is beautiful, as other cemeteries are not: half wild forest, with enormous cedars and mossy paths leading in all directions. The trees are huge, and seem to soar for hundreds of feet before branching – like cathedral pillars. And everywhere are tiny red clothed figures: Mizuko Jizos who represent babies and children who have passed on.
The temple provided breakfast and dinner, but we found a local cafe for lunch – and promptly fell off the path of enlightenment, with cake and coffee. “Egg coffee” proved to be coffee with an egg yolk dropped into it. It tasted – well, every mouthful at first tasted like coffee, then like raw egg yolk. Finished, but unlikely to ever order again.
One of the largest rock gardens in Japan was also in Koyasan. I need to understand zen gardens better. The little I’ve read indicates that they are a tradition since the 1600s; that the placement of the few rocks is of exquisite importance; that the precise raking of the white stones is meditation and enlightenment practice for monks; they represent an abstraction of nature. This particular one represented two dragons surfacing above the clouds. These rock gardens puzzle and intrigue me in a way that more spectacular temples and shrines don’t.