A weekend with the monks in Koya, Japan
Japan is a diverse country: from big, bustling cities to secluded islands and everything in between. I dare you to get bored there. I find the country fascinating and have been lucky to have had two vacations there (so far!). A temple stay with the monks in Koya is one of the special experiences I had there.
Koya is a temple village founded in the year 819 at the top of a mountain (san) range in Wakayama prefecture. It can be quite easily reached from Osaka or Kyoto. Japan Rail (JR) doesn’t operate there, so you can’t use your JR pass. The founder of the village and of Shingon Buddhism Kobo-Daishi (Kukai) is said to still be there, eternally meditating (he is not considered to be dead). You can visit the mausoleum where Kobo-Daishi’s spirit still lingers. Koya has many temples, the beautiful big cemetery Okunoin with the mausoleum and many sights of historical significance.
Getting to Koya is a lovely experience: the village can only be reached by a cable car going up the mountain. Once there, you need to take a bus to the temple you’re staying in. Staff of the bus company will explain which stop you need to get off at to reach the temple for which you have a reservation. Titus and I were staying at Hongakuin, an esoteric Buddhist temple. Upon arrival, we were shown around the temple and were told about facilities, meal and bathing times and that we were welcome to join the daily prayer at 6 AM. Our tatami-matted room looked out over a courtyard and a pond with koi carps. There were two sets of sliding rice paper doors: one separating the dining- and bedroom from a seating area on the garden side, the other set separating the entrance hall from the main room, where we kept our luggage and slippers.
On the first day we arrived at the end of the afternoon, so after a short walk around the town center it was already time for dinner. We were quite excited: Buddhist meals are completely vegetarian, if not vegan, and must contain five colors, five cooking methods (raw, cooked, fried, steamed and roasted) and five tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami). Furthermore, the food should be enjoyed with all five senses.
In the whole country you will find food prepared with the greatest eye for detail; the monks take it to a whole new level. For dinner, we were presented with three trays each. No explanation was given and we were too overwhelmed to ask for instructions, but figured we would start with the left tray, containing the miso soup and some appetizers, then proceed to the tray with the soba noodles and tempura, and finish with the fruit. Sounds logical, right? A big bowl of rice and tea was also served.
Not knowing many of the ingredients and how they would taste made for an especially mindful experience, and yes, we did enjoy it with all of our senses.
After dinner it was bath time and the monks came to help us put out the futons for the night. We turned in early since we wanted to join the morning prayer, but I didn’t set my alarm correctly so we missed it. Still we had an early start to the day as the monks served us breakfast at 7 AM. Again, it was beautifully presented and prepared. I have to admit that for a Western palet the breakfast was a bit more challenging. My other half, Mr. T., found it especially hard to cope with the seaweed in the morning. Still, we were grateful and with happy tummies we set off to explore the Okunoin cemetery and the rest of the village.
The cemetery is very impressive and we had a lovely stroll up to the mausoleum where Kobo-Daishi is eternally meditating. Even though the Buddhist cuisine is vegetarian, you can find meat in the village in case you crave it. For lunch, we had a noodle soup with some sushi and tempura. In the afternoon, we set off to the other side of Koya to the Garan temple complex, in gorgeous surroundings with some early fall colors (we were there in September).
At the other end of Koya you can see the Daimon gate, which used to be the entrance to Koya. We also made a wish at a little altar along a mountain path. Even though it is bad luck to say what we wished for, it’s safe to say we feel very blessed for the special experience in Koya and we wish we can come back again sometime.
On our last morning we did make it in time for the prayer session. A privilege to have been a part of, if even only for one morning. Even though we didn’t understand everything we saw, tasted and experienced in Koya, we kept an open mind throughout our stay and will remember the experience fondly as a spiritual enrichment.