Mt. Koya:  A Pilgrimage of “Eat, Pray, Bathe”


“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” ~Lao Tzu, ancient Chinese philosopher

Pilgrim on their Journey

Pilgrim on their Journey

Jody and I have only just arrived at Koyasan atop Mount Koya and we already feel like we’ve cheated on the pilgrimage…that we knew so little about.  It’s not long before we spot Japanese pilgrims dressed in mostly white, sporting walking sticks and topped with conical hats….  Although it’s much more common for a non-believing tourist to make the journey to this mountain retreat temple complex, the truly faithful pilgrims are still a source of great inspiration.  And 2016, the 1,200th anniversary of monastic settlement in the area, has increased numbers of both tourists and pilgrims alike.

First settled in 816 by the monk Kukai as a retreat far away from the more less faithful courtly intrigues of Kyoto (then Japan’s capital and center of power), Mt. Koya is located some 2,500 feet up in the mountains amid eight surrounding peaks.  The original quaint monastery complex has grown over the last millennial into the modern but still old-world religious town of Koya, featuring a university dedicated to religious studies and over 100 temples, many of which offer lodging to pilgrims and visitors alike.  In 2004, Mt. Koya and the surrounding area was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Scenic Temples

Scenic Temples

The revered monk and scholar Kukai, now better known by his posthumous formal title Kobo Daishi, brought the tantric teachings of Esoteric Buddhism from China and developing it into the uniquely Japanese Shingon sect, and in the process founded the sect’s headquarters on Mount Koya.

While most modern-day pilgrims, upwards of some 100,000 annually, travel by tour-bus, a small minority still set out the old-fashioned way on foot.  This journey of ~725 miles linking 88 temples is a favorite of pilgrims, known as o-henro-san (formally).  Henro can be spotted in the temples and along roadsides and throughout the trails of the pilgrimage clad in a white jacket emblazoned with the characters Dogyo Ninin, meaning “two traveling together,” as all pilgrims travel with the spirit of Kobo Daishi.

Contemplation

Contemplation

While I refuse to associate with any given religion (I can’t speak for Jody), I find that Buddhism is, by in large, one of the most accepting, open, and non-judgmental of the major organized religions of the world.  However, quite irrespective of a specific faith or denomination, I find the idea of a cleansing journey of catharsis very intriguing.  And apparently so do many others, all around the world.

The “88 Temple Pilgrimage” (hachijuhakkasho-meguri) is Japan’s most famous pilgrimage, one that loops around the island of Shikoku.  Completing the course traditionally on foot is a serious undertaking that demands several weeks up to many months of rather strenuous travel.  Good physical fitness and stamina – and more than a little faith – are required to endure the stress of constant walking over the uneven terrain of Shikoku, in every type of weather.

Larger-than-Life Staffs

Larger-than-Life Kongozue!

Many pilgrims choose to dress in traditional attire, which can include a byakue (pilgrims’ white coat), wagesa (scarf-like accoutrement worn around the neck, usually purple, indicating a religious pilgrimage), sugegasa (iconic Asian conical straw hat), and kongotsue (uniquely pilgrimage-specific walking stick, also spelled as kongo-zue).  In addition, most pilgrims carry a book called nokyocho or shuincho where red ink stamps called shu-in are collected as each temple is visited.  All of these items can be purchased at Mount Koya or at Ryozenji, traditionally the first temples of the trek.

Pilgrims' Staffs

Pilgrims’ Staffs

The Brocade Cover We Selected

The Brocade Cover We Selected

Jody and I wanted a meaningful souvenir of our spiritual visit to and temple stay within Koya, and the wooden staffs pilgrims were spied walking with caught our eye, and imagination.  The kongo-zue or kongo-jo is the wooden staff carried by henro (“pilgrim,” informal) on the Shikoku Pilgrimage in Japan, and is full of symbolism.  It is said to represent the body of Kukai/Kobo Daishi, who metaphorically and physically supports the henro along the way.  In this sense, it is to be treated with great reverence and respect, having its “foot” washed at the end of the day’s journey, and brought inside to rest for the night.  They are inscribed with the chant Namu-Daishi-Henjo-Kongo and Dogyo-Ninin:  “We Two Pilgrims Together.”  The staff is also traditionally carried aloft when crossing a bridge; Kobo Daishi was known to sleep under bridges, and pilgrims should take care to not disturb his sleeping spirit found in such locales even today.  A bell is usually affixed, which jingles during the journey to warn and avoid accidental harm of other sentient living beings, a critical element of the more orthodox Buddhists.  Further, the bell also acts as an o-mamori, or protective amulet, to help safeguard the pilgrim while on their path.  Many pilgrims use a colorfully designer brocade cover to protect the top of the staff, but this doesn’t seem to be obligatory.

Jody on a Pilgrim's Trail

Jody on a Pilgrim’s Trail

Our Rosary / Prayer Beads

Our Rosary / Prayer Beads

Nenju, also called juzu, are the Buddhist version of prayer beads (rosaries), found in so many religions.  A standard nenju has 108 beads, one for each of the “afflicting passions” that Buddhists recognize.  The number is determined based on our six senses (sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch and mind/conceptualization), our six reactions (desirable, undesirable, neither, painful, pleasurable, neither), and the temporal aspect of those reactions (past, present or future).  In other words, 6 x 6 x 3 = 108.  These “afflictions” are what bind humans to Samsara, the world of suffering.  Other larger beads may be present (“parent beads), but this are not counted as above, and beads are also used to assist in counting recitations of various mantras.  Many different styles of nenju can be found, from round to flat beads, some topped with metal rings and others without, while still others are adorned with decorative tassels.  When traveling, the nenju should always be held in one’s left hand, which symbolizes Samsara, while the right hand represents Nirvana.  It is only through handling the nenju that these two worlds come together into “Oneness.”

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Prayers near a Daishi Hall

Jody and I had made up our minds.  Being adamantly rebuked after trying to get pilgrimage stamps affixed in our own booklets, we started to look to put together our own kongo-zue.

Wooden Grave Tablets

Wooden Grave Tablets

Stupa Top with Elemental Divisions

Our Staff’s Stupa Top with Elemental Divisions

Sometimes extensive calligraphy can found on the staff.  The top usually has four sets of notches, dividing it into five sections. Each section has a character, and from the top to bottom, they represent Ka or khah (space), Ra or Rah (air), Ha or Hah (fire), Va or Vah (water), and A or Ah (earth).  In this way the kongotsue symbolizes a Buddhist stupa, originally a reliquary for housing a relic of the Buddha or other revered monk/teacher.  These stupas form the basis of the Japanese pagoda.  Pagodas in Japan have taken the form of five-storied structures, each story representing the same elements as scribed on the walking staffs.  There are the elements to which the body returns upon death.  Considering the staff as a representative pagoda, combined with its pyramidal top, also represents a sotoba, or wooden grave tablet.  In this function, the kongo-zue was historically used as a gravestone if a pilgrim were to die upon the trail.  In fact, some pilgrims still write their kaimyo, their posthumous name by which they will be known in the next realm after death, just as it would be on an actual gravestone.

Cemetery Path Leading to the Daishi Hall

Cemetery Path Leading to the Daishi Hall

We found a shop in Koyasan, not far from Okunoin, the famous cemetery found there.  The staffs themselves were all very similar, but there was a huge array of accessories that made choosing very difficult.  Prayer beads of every sort, brocade covers, and decorative tassels.  In another store we found just the perfect bell to adorn our walking staff.

Our Staff

Our Staff

Written in the middle area of the staff are passages from the Gohogo Mantra, whos central message is roughly, “Homage to the Savior Daishi, the Illuminating and Imperishable One.”  This Mantra is chanted by pilgrims three times in front of the Daishi Halls found at each temple visited during their journey.

Jody at Koya's Main Gate, a landmark for Pilgrimage Beginning or End

Jody at Koya’s Main Gate, a landmark for Pilgrimage Beginning or End

Most pilgrims leave their kongo-zue at Okubo-ji, the 88th and final temple of the pilgrimage.  Interestingly, a funerary practice can still be found in Shikoku and some other parts of Japan whereby the decedent is dressed as a pilgrim (unlike the West, in Asian white is the color of death), complete with a staff and pilgrim’s stamp book, preparing them for their final journey.  Finally, there are two different colored staffs.  Novice pilgrims use bare wooden ones, while those experienced who serve as leaders or guides utilize scarlet-colored staffs denoting their elevated status.

Buddhist Texts on the Staff

Buddhist Texts on the Staff

And even when you reach the 88th temple, you’re still not technically finished!  The formal trek requires a return back to your 1st temple starting point.  Many select Mount Koya, the site of Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum, for the end and beginning, where thanks can be given directly to the monk for his spiritual companionship along the way.  The journey is a rather lengthy and difficult ordeal for those who attempt it, but then again, that’s rather the point.

The mountain is accessible primarily by the Nankai Electric Railway from Namba Station in Osaka, which connects to Gokurakubashi at the base of the mountain, with journey times of 80-90 minutes.  The final half of the trip is a slow twisting train climb up into the heavily wooded mountains and can be beautifully scenic in the right weather.  The train fare includes the final and steep 10 minute funicular train ascent from Gokurakubashi to the town of Koyasan.  Once off the funicular you’ll have to take a short bus or taxi ride into town.  Like elsewhere throughout Japan, the train, funicular and bus schedules are all synchronized like clockwork, with very little time to spare.  We barely had even five minutes between train, cable car, and bus.

Funicular Connection Train Service to Koyasan's Bus Terminal

Funicular Connection Train Service to Koyasan’s Bus Terminal

A good value if planning a visit is to purchase the Koyasan World Heritage Ticket available from any Nankai ticket counter.  This ticket includes roundtrip train, funicular, and an all-day Koyasan bus pass, for either a day-trip, or overnight stay, and also includes coupons and discounts to the area’s most popular destinations.

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Most pilgrims ending their journey at Mount Koya would claim they do so in order to give thanks for a successful pilgrimage.  While Jody and I visited for very different reasons and with knowing very little of the sacredness of the area, I think we ended our own little journey still as a culmination of something much bigger.  Koyasan spoke to our souls, and we to this day proudly and respectfully display our kongo-zue in our home.

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“Faith is not the clinging to a shrine but an endless pilgrimage of the heart.”  ~Abraham Joshua Heschel, Polish-born American Rabbi