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Mount Koya: Day 1, The Garan
(Fri., Oct. 12, 2001)

 Friday, October 12, 2001 (click to see all posts from this day)
 The Yamato Area


Mount Koya. Ed Readicker-Henderson, author of The Traveler's Guide to Japanese Pilgrimages, wrote that if he had one day to spend in Japan, he'd spend it here. For experienced Japan travelers, I think he's right. (Newcomers should spend the day in Kamakura.)

Founded by Kobo Daishi--about whom you'll be hearing a lot in the next weeks--this mountaintop sanctuary, 820 meters (2,665 feet) above sea level, has a rare combination of natural beauty and religious presence. For example: it's located in a basin surround by eight peaks, which to the religiously-minded represent the eight petals of the sacred lotus. Thus the dweller on Koya is in the center of the sacred.

Although the foundation of this massive complex was laid nearly 1200 years ago, it has been destroyed and rebuilt may times. Few buildings are more than two or three hundred years old. Yet the notion that people have been "doing religion" here for so long pervades everything. This place has never not been a center for the development of spirituality, as long as humans have occupied it.

You can find a full account of the legend of the founding of the monastic complex on Koyasan here. Essentially, it says that, while studying in China, Kukai (later Kobo Daishi, about whom you'll hear a lot) threw his sanko (a ceremonial implement) as far as he could, and it landed in a tree on a mountain in Japan (!). After returning to Japan, he requested use of the mountain from the Emperor, and was granted the area now known as Koyasan. On his way to the mountain, he met a gigantic red-bearded hunter, with two dogs, one black and one white. This was in fact Kariba Myoujin, the Shinto god of Mount Koya (along with his mother, the goddess Nibu Myoujin). He guided Kobo Daishi to the sanko in the pine, where the Daishi established his monastery, and later built a Shinto shrine (seen on my Garan page) to propitiate the Myoujin. This is another case of the syncretism involved when one religion (Buddhism) moves into the area of another (Shinto).


Now, for the details of my day. I left Nara before 10, and took several trains until I reached the base of the cable car up to Koyasan. I had been hoping to walk up the mountain, but my research showed that this involves a steep hike of approximately 20 kilometers! Not today.

I took the cable car up, and took a bus the 3 kilometers or so to the stop near the Youth Hostel, which is quite near the center of town.

I dropped my bag around 1:00--too early to check in--and walked 5 minutes or so to the information center to get details for tomorrow's ferry ride. Then I shopped a bit in the religious curios shops and the bookstore, but didn't buy anything.

Finally, I headed for today's goal: the Garan area of Koyasan.

On the Way to the Garan

First, I stopped briefly at the Kongobuji. This large hall and associated gardens is the center not only of all the temples in the Koya complex, but of about 3,000 temples nationwide. I didn't go inside, as I've been there before and have plenty of pictures. But I felt good about just stopping to say "hi" to an old friend.

Note the water buckets on the top and the ladder always at the ready in case of fire.

Next to the Kongobuji stands this impressive bell. It has been used to toll the time on Mount Koya since the 1600's. It still tolls all the even hours from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. (The old Japanese method of timekeeping separated the day into 12 divisions, each one equal to two modern hours. I imagine that's why this bell sounds only on the even numbers.

Koyasan is campaigning to become a designated World Heritage Site. (One is shocked to discover it isn't!) Anyway, these signs are all over the mountain. I hope the syntax doesn't hurt their chances of being selected!

The Garan at Mount Koya

I arrived shortly at the Garan precincts. This is one of the most amazing assemblages of religious architecture in Japan, worthy of a Words and Pictures page. I said today's prayers in front of a stunning gilded image of Dainichi Nyorai surrounded by four other Buddhas. (You can learn more about these in the Words and Pictures page about the "Gochi Nyorai.") Dainichi means "Great Sun," the Indian Vairocana. He is the central figure in Shingon Buddhism (Kobo Daishi's sect), and also happens to be the guardian of my birth month (July). Unfortunately, photos weren't allowed inside the hall; if I can find an image on the Internet, I'll add it later.

Meanwhile, enjoy the Words and Pictures of the Garan.

Moving On

At the far western reach of the mountain's east-west axis lies the Daimon. Two of the seven paths up the mountain met here, and it was the natural entry point for those coming from the capital. These days, two car roads approach it--then swerve around it.

I strolled on back to the town center, had some vegetarian food (one of the delights of Koya) and checked in to the Hostel early. All in all, a relaxing day, and a necessary break before starting my "official" pilgrimage tomorrow. (For more on that, see today's Journal.)

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Posted October 6, 2019