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Golden Week Trip pt.1 - Koya-san

Written on: Saturday May 24th, 2008

A journal entry from: Japan

I had a week's holiday in the beginning of May, and did some travelling again. But I've been sick almost ever since I got back so it's taken a while to get the photos up. Here's the first post.

The first stop was Koya-san, a small mountain village in central Japan. It founded several centuries ago by a monk and scholar known now as Kobo-Daishi. He's an important figure in Japanese history and founded a major sect of Buddhism. He built this place as a monastic retreat, and lived there for years, until his death. He is considered to be "meditating" still, not actually having died. Koya-san is considered the holiest, or at least one of the most important, Buddhist sites in Japan. It is also the last stop that people must make on the pilgrimage circuit of the 88 temples of Shikoku.

We visited the masoluem of Kobo-Daishi, the Okunoin, where people pay their respects and pray to him. Surrounding this hall are acres of cemetery. It's an interesting walk through this cemetery - old, moss-covered markers among huge Japanese cedars, creating a forest reminiscent of the West Coast in Canada.

Apparently, anyone who is "anyone' in Japan has either been interred here or had some part of their remains or ashes interred here. All the bigger companies in Japan also have corporate plots and all the company bigwigs get a place there. It was a little strange walking down one path (outside of the forest area) with all these of stone markers bearing logos or statues of all sorts of companies; for example, there was a big, stone cup of coffee for the plot of one of the big coffee companies.

Koya-san consists of many temples (all of the same sect and basically off-shoots of the main temple), and a couple of streets of shops and restaurants. Also, a small university of religious studies. No hotels or ryokan, though - the only accommodation are the temples that offer lodging to travellers and pilgrims. I spent the night at one; the room was lovely, big enough for four people, with painted sliding doors and my own kotatsu (heated table), and the food was a great vegetarian meal, served right to my room.

In the morning, I spent another couple hours wandering around the town, and visited the Mausoleum of the Tokugawa family, the ruling Shogunate family in Japan centuries earlier. Then I headed up to a nearby trail for a short hike. It turns out the trail I ended up on was once part of the "women's pilgrimage". Many people have come to Koya over the centuries on spiritual pilgrimages, but women were not allowed into Koya until modern times. They would travel to the boundary and stay in special lodgings. They could also, as I understand it, follow this path, which lead to a mountain-top shrine, and comes back around to the Daimon Gates through which we entered Koya the day before, the main entrance for the town.