If you are reading this blog it may be because you love traveling, you have that feeling deep inside that tells you constantly, as a whisper, “move, fly, go to see things you haven’t seen, go to experience situations you haven’t experienced yet, go to know other ways of living, escape and forget about your little world in order to feel the entire world through your eyes, your skin… go somewhere where your 5 senses are put out of the comfort zone because all of them experience new feelings at the same time”. If you need these kinds of experiences, you are one of us, you want to read this post, follow this blog and know about the experience we had in Koyasan (Japan). Because only in those places where it is difficult to get, those places that are sacred for the locals, those places where you don’t have other option than doing the same as the local people do, only in those places you are able to put down that whisper. Welcome to Mapping The Map, welcome to Koyasan!
We got up early in the morning in Kyoto. The Tanaka-Ya ryokan was a small but comfortable place to sleep in the middle of the ancient Gion quarter in Kyoto. The old, smiley landlady, that opened the door 2 days before and offered us tea and cookies, said goodbye and whished us a nice trip to the foggy and sacred mountains of Koya.
We took the Shinkansen to Osaka (it takes just 15 minutes by high speed train from Kyoto to Osaka). In the Shin-Osaka station we took the metro, crossing Osaka underground, to Namba station. There we left our baggage in the locks. At this moment we felt completely free, just our little bags in our back and the feeling that something big was awaiting at night: we knew it was the Obon, the Japanese Buddhist custom to honour the ancestors. And we knew we were going to the most sacred place in Japan, to the largest cemetery in Japan: the Okunoin.
We had to take another train in Namba and for more than two hours we were just looking at the landscape and the people sitting in front of us. Once we arrived to Gokurakubashi station we had to take the Nankai Koyasan Cable to reach the top of the mountain plus a bus that took us to the town gate. The air temperature there was almost 10ºC lower than in the valley, which is something to be pleased for, considering we were having almost 40ºC and 90% humidity in the city. We could breath, charge our batteries and start admiring the fantastic Daimon Gate. Two devils welcome you to this magic town. Passing through the gate you can consider yourself in Koyasan!
Walking down the main street we stopped in a Family Mart and bought some sushi. We ate it in a wooden table in front of the Garan. Two more devils were awaiting us. Their eyes and faces looked like we shouldn’t cross that gate to the Garan.
But we were there to discover everything, feel the place and listen to new voices and sounds. And we crossed.
What we saw there astonished us. The Garan temple was a place surrounded by giant sequoias, pagodas and Buddhist buildings. The Dai-to pagoda is the most impressive building there. We walked towards the impressive pagoda while the monks were hitting the giant bell. Mystic, relaxing, unique.
Many thoughts came to our minds in that peaceful scenario. The smell was a mixture of humidity, old wood and incense. Everything and everyone was waiting for the algid moment at night when the Garan temple and the Kobo-Daishi Mausoleum in the middle of the Okunoin cemetery are connected by thousands of candles (some kilometres of distance between them) and monks and visitors walk through this candle path. But it was early in the afternoon and people were just watching, visiting and praying. Without our sandals we went into the pagoda, feeling the old tatami under our feet. We sat inside, just joining the moment.
Some drops started to hit the sandy ground outside. The smell of the rain came to us while putting our sandals again. We wanted to visit the largest zen garden in Japan but we didn’t want to get wet. Just two hundred metres approximately have to be walked from Garan to the Kongobu-ji temple. This temple is the seat of Shingon School, the cradle of esoteric Buddhism and the Koyasan Abbot residence. The wooden structure of this temple transports you to ancient times when Buddhism started to spread through Japan. Also the paintings on the walls of the Ohiro-ma room deserve some minutes of close watching.
And then we saw them. Loads of rocks situated strategically around one building of the temple. They say that you will get the enlightenment if you achieve to see all rocks at the same time. However, the only way to see all them is from the sky. Fantastically distributed, these stones act to you as if they were living entities. Some magic is behind the zen knowledge and this temple will make you understand that you cannot understand everything.
With the ticket you can also have some tea and rice biscuits while a monk talks to the audience sitting in the tatami in the main room of the temple.
A thunder broke the sky just above our heads. A gust of wind crossed the main room while drinking tea. The sound of millions of drops falling outside. The smell of the rain again came to our noses. Five minutes of tropical, pouring rain and then sunny again. Some say that the rocks represent the back of a sleepy dragon, and this dragon was completely dripping at that moment.
We took advantage of the temporary sunbeam and crossed the entire town towards the Okuno-in cemetery. We wanted to visit this place with day light and at night. And this was one of our best decisions of our trip to Japan. There are no words to describe how you feel surrounded by thousands of graves, in the middle of a millenary forest of giant sequoias; the moss was on every tomb, the silence in every corner and spirituality in every place. It is said that every good Japanese Buddhist needs to have part of his body in this cemetery when passing away, so you can find between the trees some zones reserved for the wealthiest corporations of Japan. But next to them the tomb of a monk that reminds you that death makes everyone equal independently of the money in live.
At the end of the path, in the middle of the forest and far away from the town we found a big building: the Kobo-Daishi Mausoleum. Kobo-Daishi was the one that spread the Buddhism through Japan and we were going to meet him again some days later by chance, far away from Koyasan. But this will be explained in another post.
In front of the mausoleum there was the candle room. It has hundreds of lamps, two of them had been burning for almost 900 years, they say.
We walked through that room barefoot. The floor was wet and cold. The light inside that building was out of this world. We have never seen again the same kind of light. Corridors with lamps on the right, on the left, on the roof, lamps everywhere. This is one of those places that you cannot forget in your entire life. You take this place for you and won’t let it scape from your memory. It is just so unique, so magical and so incredible, that any writer could have imagined a place like this. And this is why we lost time perception inside this room.
Another thunder got us up. It was late. We had to get to the Eko-in temple for having dinner and a shower.
Eko-in is managed by young and nice monks. One young monk guided us towards our room. The temple was like a labyrinth. Once he opened the door he explained us the rules, the meal and all the details we needed to know to have a pleasant stay. He left us alone and we could relax for some minutes. I opened the window and I realized we were having views to the Japanese garden of the temple with small fountain and green leaves in front of us. The meals are vegetarian as this is the kind of food they eat every day. We were not used to it and we didn’t know what we were eating. Just a different experience to add to our book of unforgettable moments.
We had dinner, we had a shower and dark night was already outside. It was the time when the biggest Obon ceremony was going to take place. Eko-in was just in front of the entrance of the Okunoin cemetery and there we went. Hundreds of people were waiting for the Abbot and the older monks. There were candles everywhere in the ground, defining a path towards the dark of the cemetery. The monks arrived and told some words that we couldn’t understand. At that point we started to walk behind the monks towards the illuminated darkness. We remade the steps we did in the afternoon but now with many other locals. We helped them to nail the candles in the ground, dozens of candles. It was impossible not to think about our grandparents that passed away. Although we are not Buddhists, the feeling was so strong, the fact of knowing that we were living the night were Buddhist ancestors come back was so deep, that we were transported automatically to the same feelings that locals were having. The communion between them and us was complete. But then…
Lightning between the dark branches of the sequoias. Another thunderstorm. And rain, pouring rain again. With one umbrella, we followed the people towards the mausoleum. A cemetery, a forest in the night, thousands of candles and a thunderstorm. What an experience!
Finally we got to the Kobo-Daishi Mausoleum again, and then, sitting in the main room of the mausoleum all monks started to sing the Vairocana mantra while hitting the gong. Everything was so transcendent, we couldn’t disconnect from those sounds. Outside, the thunderstorm escorted the mantras and the entire universe stopped for us.
After losing time perception again we went out of the mausoleum knowing that we had experienced the most magical, unique, indescribable experience of our lives. The thunderstorm stopped and we walked in silence towards the exit of the cemetery with half of the candles already burning despite of the rain. We are not the same after that.