If you think Japan is all neon lights, pachinko parlours and sprawling cities, think again. Here Buddhism sits alongside the frenetic pace of modern life like the perfect ying to its yang. And if you really want to experience it, there’s one place you need to go: the mountainside monasteries of Koya-san.
Tucked up in my tatami bed early that night, it was hard to imagine we’d been in Kyoto that morning. On a much-anticipated trip to Japan, I’d somehow convinced my husband to trade in our comfortable guesthouse for a tatami-mat room, our favourite sushi restaurant for a vegetarian dinner, and holiday sleep-ins to join monks for early morning prayers.
Still, it wasn’t all hard going. Many of the more dedicated enter Koya-san via the ‘walk of life’, an 88-temple pilgrimage retracing the footsteps of the eighth-century monk and scholar Kobo-Daishi. It can take well over a month to complete the 1200 km circuit on foot, but we’d chosen to take the train instead. That morning we’d whizzed out of Kyoto, through Osaka and boarded a cable car that cut a swathe through the giant cedars adorning the mountains. While you could visit in a day, Mount Koya’s charged atmosphere is best experienced with an overnight stay in one of its 53 monasteries that have opened their doors to visitors. We’d secured a night at Muryoko, in a place renowned for its preparation of shojin ryori: a multi-course meal that’s prepared without meat, fish, onion or garlic.
Check-in times are strictly adhered to – after we tracked down our monastery, a smiling navy-robed monk whisked our bags away and told us to be back by four. No visit to Mount Koya is complete without a wander through Oku-no-in, the cemetery and temple complex that winds through the dense forest, and so we set off to explore it all. By the time we reached the Toro-do, the main building at the top of the complex, the light was low in the autumn sky and wispy strands of mist had begun to curl around the thousands of tombs. Suddenly, the chanting of monks filled the air and, ever so slowly, the lanterns lining the path twinkled on, bathing the forest in a haze
of golden light.
It was one of those moments you hope to find when you’re travelling. But we were, as always, running late. It was now close to the designated check-in time, and there was an hour’s walk ahead of us. What followed was a less than peaceful sprint, a speedy check-in and a mountain of apologies. Despite the rush, there was still time for a pre-dinner bath. It’s easy to see why the Japanese love these giant baths. In that water, with hot steam dancing on the surface, the day slipped away. It was the perfect way to prepare for the main event: dinner.
After we were steamed, robed and waiting, a gong heralded the beginning of the meal. Two shaven-head monks slid open the paper door to our room carrying glossy black lacquer plates filled with an array of delicate dishes: tempura vegetables, silky tofu, miso soup, pickles, seaweed salads and wild potatoes. I’d had a hard time convincing my meat-loving husband that this meal would be something to look forward to, but it now rates as one of the best of our lives. After we finished slurping noodles, sipping tea and chomping through an impressive array of vegetables, the monks appeared again to whisk away the plates and lie out our beds for the nights. Tucked up tight, for the first time in more years than I can remember, we were sleeping soundly by nine.
And sleep we did. When the first gong sounded at 5:00 am neither of us stirred. When the second rang out at 5:30 am, I groggily opened an eye. Outside the door, the sound of feet shuffling to the meditation room was the only clue we’d slept in. Cursing as we jumped into crumpled clothes, we crept into the room as the doors were closing. Wrapped in a curtain of incense, one single drum began to beat and then chanting filled the room. It was as if a spell had been cast in that tiny space and for half an hour we sat there, watching the monks in the dancing candlelight as the sound rose and fell, dispersed by the occasional clash of a cymbal.
All too soon it was over and we shuffled back to our room in time for breakfast. Perhaps it was the pre-dawn wake-up, or even the cold mountain air, but that morning’s meal of green tea, pickles and rice was a little harder to stomach. Leaving the monastery as the first rays of daylight cut through the sky, I spied a warm artificial glow near the kitchen. I silently slipped my yen into the machine and two cans of hot chocolate clunked into the tray below. Thankfully, this was Japan, and even in a monastery on a sacred mountain you could find a vending machine.