My goal in writing this is to share some sense of what it’s like to walk Koya-san’s forest paths at night. Stone lanterns cast pools of warm light on the flagstone path, illuminating moss-covered monuments to the ancient dead as far into the woods as the light can penetrate. Sometimes I turned off the path to navigate the twisting ways between the shadowed plinths and torii arches to better experience the tranquil darkness.
Just two hours south of Osaka’s bustle, the air on Mt. Koya is warm, humid, and quiet except for for the nocturnal sounds of birds and insects. Japan’s cities feel like they’re hurtling into the future; Mt. Koya feels lost in time.
Real-world comparisons are of limited use– San Francisco’s Muir redwoods have a similar, cathedral-like reverence. The Maya city Tikal’s eerie stone ruins were built at the same time, but while the Maya abandoned Tikal 1200 years ago, Koya-san’s monasteries are still in use. The monks observe the same rituals they have for over a millennium, and the forest cemetery has grown to 200,000 graves.
Fictional references come closer. Koya-san belongs to the Japan of Spirited Away or The Legend of Zelda. I did no research before coming to Koya-san, simply following a stranger’s fervent recommendation that it would be worth it, so I was surprised and awestruck to discover, two kilometers into the forest, an ornate temple filled with 10,000 lanterns, their red and gold metal sharply contrasting–yet perfectly complementing– the forest’s green and brown. Damp cedar and burning incense mingled in the air. It didn’t matter that Koya-san is hardly unknown to tourism; it was new and unknown to me. I felt like I’d stumbled on one of Earth’s wonderful secrets.
Getting to Koya-san was just enough of an adventure that I felt like I earned my arrival. My Japanese proved good enough to navigate two train transfers from Osaka, the funicular up Mt. Koya, and the local bus network. There are 13 monasteries that accommodate pilgrims and tourists with tatami mats and Buddhist monk-style meals. All these options cost $100s of dollars and were booked solid, but luckily I found a last-minute capsule-style guesthouse next to the cemetery to stay in. Its sarcophagi-sized chambers were immaculate, cozy, and an excellent value.
Ironically, it turns out the monasteries mostly house foreign tourists. When I encountered a tour group I heard more French and German than Japanese. My guesthouse held about 20 people, mostly solo travelers who shared more in common with Koya-san’s historic pilgrims than the monasteries’ vacationing families.
One of the themes that’s fascinated me most in traveling has been societal sustainability. I grew up in the head-first rush from past to future particular to American cities, where few families have lived for more than 3 or 4 generations. Europe feels much more lived in; I met a Catalan woman whose family has lived in the same neighborhood for centuries. Living in places steeped in history makes it easier to imagine the present generation as just one among many past, and many yet to come. Right now we’re living in a unique epoch. If society’s to endure for thousands (or millions!?) of years, the sustain-phase is going to be so different from our current progress-phase. I don’t advocate stifling stasis, but I think there’s something to learn from long-enduring places like Koya-san.
Behind the lantern temple at the heart of the forest is a sealed shrine. Legend holds that Kukai, the monk who founded Koya’s sect of Shingon Buddhism((Short version: an esoteric branch of Buddhism that believes the ultimate nature of Buddhahood cannot be communicated through words, but rather through rituals that guide the body, mind, and speech toward realizing truth.)) has been meditating since he entered it in 837AD.
I sat nearby and did some meditating of my own, breathing the incense and humid forest air. I reflected on what an strange route my life had taken to bring me to such a strange and wonderful place.
I departed the shrine in silence, then spent several hours wandering the forest and monuments practicing photography– returning home only minutes before the capsule hotel locked for the night (presumably to keep out forest spirits).
There’s more to Koya-san than the cemetery Okunoin. The next day I toured the active monasteries. Most importantly, I acquired a goshuin-cho, a book of blank pages bound in Koya-san cedar. Each temple and shrine in Japan has its own unique calligraphic seal which pilgrims can collect in these books (like a passport or sacred Pokédex). Eager to catch ’em all, I set out an a journey of enlightenment across the Kansai region.