Finding Peace in Koyasan

The too-clean granite walkway and evenly spaced stone lanterns went on no further. The unforested, newer section of the cemetery with its hodgepodge collection of minimalistic, ornate, corporate, and grandiose tombs and gravemarkers were behind us. We turned left, umbrellas high in the air – higher than the sun – and soon joined the older, more foot-worn path as giants stood at attention. The only sound was our footfalls lightly splashing in the dimpled centuries-old stone blocks; the only light the orange glow from the erratically-spaced, shoulder-high lanterns. The umbrella and lingering darkness restricted our view to the trees nearest the path. Six-hundred-year old cedars stood watch over the hillside, not a single one less than arm-span wide, not one with a branch low enough to see without craning our necks.  Dotting the land between the trees were hundreds of thousands of graves and shrines, some far older than the trees, nearly all of them hosting a growing blanket of moss. We walked on, steadily, every step taking us deeper into the ancient Okunoin cemetery of Koyasan, every moment spiriting us away into the realm of a Miyazaki film.

Parents who have lost their children place bibs on the Jizo statues (and many others now) in hopes that the Jizo will guide their children to heaven. It was believed that children would not reach heaven because of the agony their death had caused their parents.

Not wanting to miss the morning prayer, we arrived too early. We entered the temple at the far northern end of Okunoin, past the bridge leading to the Kobo Daishi Gobyu mausoleum and temple and waited, trying our hardest to not look as lost and confused as we felt. With most visitors to Koyasan staying in one of the many Buddhist Temples near the town center, those staying at Guesthouse Kokuu tended to have the morning prayers at Kobo Daishi’s temple to themselves, save for a few locals who live at this end of town and any pilgrims passing through.

A few ochre-robed monks shuffled past in silence while we stood staring at the beauty of the temple’s interior. Then, luckily, a familiar face showed up, though you can barely see it beneath the shaggy hair and wide-rimmed glasses. It was Nathan, the American pHd candidate from California (Berkeley, natch) who had been studying Buddhism for the past fifteen years. My knees ached at the sight of him, vividly remembering the agony I was in as I un-pretzeled my body following the one-hour meditation session he led the night before. Nathan, his puppy-soft voice quieter than usual, led us to the side of the main dais where we left our shoes, then instructed us on taking a pinch of zuko incense, an ashy like powder with a pungent, Earthy scent, and rubbing it between our palms to cleanse ourselves. Koyasan’s particular brand of Buddhism, Shingon, Nathan tells us, is far more ritualized than other sects. The zuko incense being just one of the differences. We padded across the front of the carpeted dais to two groups of five seats. Nathan sat cross-legged in the center, between the two rows of spectator seats. I was happy for a chair.

Okunoin Cemetery is over a thousand years old and occupies the space betwee a cedar forest over 600 years old.
Okunoin Cemetery is over a thousand years old and its 200,000 graves lie amongst a cedar forest over 600 years old.

A distant bell was struck and a dozen monks, clad in elaborate robes with numerous folds, streamed in from a side entry. It was 6 a.m. and silent. The bell tolled again, louder, and the monks busied themselves near the back of the temple. Another toll, then another, and another. It was getting louder, but still behind us, from within the forest, across the sacred bridge perhaps, beyond which, where we were, no photographs were allowed. Most of the monks kneeled down and sat back on their heels along the sides of the raised platform before us while others stood at attention.

I looked over my shoulder, out through the open exterior of the temple, and saw four robed monks, each in wooden raised sandals and conical hats, marching our way. A chorus of birdsong trailed them. Two of the monks shouldered a long bamboo pole, suspended from the center was a large wooden crate containing Kobo Daishi’s breakfast. Kobo Daishi, the founder of Koyasan’s Shingon sect of Buddhism, died over a thousand years ago but is believed to live on, spending eternity in meditation. The monks here feed him every morning and afternoon. Eternally. No simple bowl of rice or pull-top can of sake like those left at Shinto shrines, Kobo Daishi is given a proper meal. The next five minutes are spent watching the monks take away the previous meal and set out the fresh one, each action performed with ritualistic precision.

Visiting the cemetery at night is a surreal experience.
Visiting the cemetery at night is a surreal experience.

To attend a morning prayer session at a Shingon temple is to understand that you are a mere spectator. This is not a Catholic mass with its synchronized kneeling and standing. There are no and also with yous. There is only sitting and watching and listening as the monks chant their morning sutras. Three times the monks bowed their heads to the floor, abruptly stood up, then bowed again in time with a bell. Then the chanting began. Nathan removed an iPad from his bag and followed along with the kanji flowing vertically down the illuminated screen, from right to left.

Mu Chi Yaku Mu Toku I Mu Sho Tok Ko

There is no wisdom and no attainment, because there is no object to be attained.

Mu Ku Ge Ko Mu U Ku Fu

Because he has no obstructions, he has no fear.

The chanting had a calming effect on us. Peace and tranquility flooded the room. A harmonious relaxation washed over us, one that made it oh so difficult to stay awake. Like attending a concert for a harpist. My head snapped upright as the weight of it fell forward and startled me awake. I gently elbowed Kristin to keep her awake. A few moments later, a Swedish couple who had arrived late struggled to stifle their giggles. One of the monks on the dais, the one nearest us, the one whose lips barely moved and who may or may not have been chanting at all, was also struggling to stay awake. As the chants rolled on this monk also battled the soothing sounds in effort to stay awake. We sat there, at peace, and also quite amused as this monk’s eyes fell close, his chin started to drop, and then with a sudden whipsaw jerk, his head snapped down and up, his eyes startled wide. It really was hard to not giggle.

The little capsule-type rooms were plenty spacious and quite cozy. We definitely recommend Guesthouse Kokuu if staying in Koyasan (especially if you didn't manage to book a stay at a temple).
The little capsule-type rooms were plenty spacious and quite cozy. We definitely recommend Guesthouse Kokuu if staying in Koyasan (especially if you didn’t manage to book a stay at a temple).

Later that day, the chants fresh in our memory, we sat in a quiet room with incense at Daishi Kyokai and tried our hands at copying a sutra. “Heart Sutra of the Perfection of Wisdom” is a short text of just 262 kanji. The chant above, which was unlikely what we heard during the morning prayer, was just two lines of the Heart Sutra. I had been practicing Hiragana lately, trying my best to learn the 46-character syllabary (one of two syllabaries in addition to the hundreds of kanji used in Japanese writing) but copying the complex eight- and ten-stroke kanji of the sutra made me realize how unlikely any of this was going to stick. Nevertheless, Kristin wanted us to do it. And so, for over an hour, we sat in quiet and focused on copying these complex characters while trying to meditate on the meaning of the chant.

The next day was a big day in Koyasan, the town’s 1200th anniversary celebration. Unlike a lot of founder’s day festivals, Koyasan’s founding coincides with the birth of the Shingon form of Buddhism, established in 816 by Kobo Daishi, the Bodhisattva we watched receive breakfast the prior morning. The ceremony included a ritual dance from the reigning Yokozuna-ranked sumo wrestlers, a procession of hundreds of monks, much chanting, and the tossing of prayer cards from atop a large gate. Everything was in Japanese. We knew who none of the key players were. We understood nothing. And yet we loved every minute of it.

We had a terrific spot to watch the ceremonies.
We had a terrific spot to watch the ceremonies.

Having arrived an hour before the ceremonies, we were able to get a good spot near the front of the barricade; hundreds of people filling in all around us. We faced the gate just steps behind the hundred-plus monks aligned in columns before the gate. The ceremony was a serious affair, but not without its moments of humanity. Some happy smiles and handshakes here, a group photo there. One of the five monks stationed equidistantly across the top of the gate was caught periodically checking his smartphone. Maybe the one we saw falling asleep at prayer? Several dozen monks gathered loosely in identical robes for a group photo on the steps in front of the gate, but too many of the monks were all too happy chatting and laughing amongst themselves to bother taking the pose seriously. A more senior monk tugged and jostled and turned shoulders and practically pleaded with the others for JUST ONE MINUTE of their attention, like a mother trying to corral her spring feverish children for a family portrait on Easter.

Yokozuna arrived to perform a ceremonial dance, led by Hakuho, the reigning champ we watched win the tournament in Osaka.

It was a beautiful day in the mountains of Kansai, a perfect day for an early morning ceremony under a brilliant blue sky. And after the monks streamed through the gate and the Yokozuna left and the public was done leaping and grasping at the falling prayer cards — Kristin came away with one — we continued west to the massive Daimon Gate and turned our boots onto the dirt pilgrimage route and hiked back along the ridge to our guesthouse on the east end of town. Up and over the mountain we met, the day just warm enough to make a jacket unnecessary. Signs warned of bear activity on the trails and, for a moment, we felt back home in the Cascades amongst all those conifers. We hiked several miles up and down the sides of a short mountain, a chorus of chants carried on the wind reminded us of the holiness of this place we were visiting. While the ceremony for the public lasted just 90 minutes, it would go on throughout the day for the monks who had gathered to celebrate the sacred founder who, behind two lanterns that had been continuously burning for over 900 years, lies the remains of a man whose spirit was soon due an evening meal.

Five monks stood like sentinels across the gate showering the monks (and then the pubic) with prayer cards.
Five monks stood like sentinels across the gate showering the monks (and then the pubic) with prayer cards.

Special Thanks: We are extremely happy to announce that Ron Helm and Pacific Biomarkers, Kristin’s former employer, have offered to sponsor our upcoming year of travel with a generous monthly stipend. Words cannot express our surprise and gratitude. Sincere thanks to and to Ron Helm for spontaneously clicking on Kristin’s LinkedIn profile to see what she’s up to. We’re so glad you found our story inspiring!

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Doug Walsh

Writer, Traveler

Doug Walsh is a writer, traveler, cyclist, and gamer who spent two years traveling from Seattle to Singapore, the long way around, by bicycle and sea. He's the author of the upcoming novel "Tailwinds Past Florence."

  1. Looks like you guys are having alot of fun on your trip, hope to see you guys when ever you guys get back to the states!

    1. Hi Jeff! Thanks for the message! Things are certainly going well. We’re in Japan for a couple more weeks, then off to Indonesia for a little over a month. Might be back in NJ this summer for a week before we return to our bikes in Italy.

  2. As always, great writing and photos! I can certainly imagine your surprise at the generosity of Ron Helm and Pacific Biomarkers. What a wonderful gesture!

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About Us

We're Doug & Kristin Walsh, a couple of Washingtonians who love to travel, both abroad and in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest. We set off to travel the world in 2014, primarily by bicycle. We're back home now, but the travel bug continues to be fed every chance we get.

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