16 May 2018:
A trip to Koya-san (south of Kyoto) took us to an elevation of 900 metres and to the centre of the esoteric Buddhist sect of Shingon in a site founded by the great Buddhist monk, Kobo Daishi Kukai. It was a bit of a mission to get there: starting early from Kyoto, we took 1 bus, 3 trains, a cable car / funicular and then another bus before arriving at our accommodation (approximately a 3 hour journey but, as we are in Japan, the connections were all seamless disembarking one train with the next one already waiting on the same platform).
Here we stayed in a shukubo (temple lodgings) which were originally built for itinerant monks and were pretty simple – a room (spotlessly clean of course) with tatami mats and futon bedding on the floor and a shared bathroom (including an onsen). We were looked after by monks who encouraged us several times to read their laminated leaflet about rules and manners.
We ate at the temple, sampling the shojin ryori cuisine which comprises of Buddhist vegetarian meals and is entirely vegan. The presentation is rather elaborate: a series of small dishes on a couple of trays and you sit cross legged on a cushion on the floor. The cooking is based on concepts of 5 flavours, 5 cooking methods and 5 colours and each meal includes a grilled dish, a deep fried dish, a pickled dish, a tofu dish and a soup dish (called dashi). It has to be said we weren’t entirely sure exactly what everything was (nor whether there was an etiquette in terms of what order we were meant to consume the small dishes) but it didn’t seem to matter too much. One slight curiosity was that your rice bowl doubled as your green tea cup and so you could only have rice or tea at any one time.
L: Dinner; R: Breakfast
They say “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” so while in Koya-san we attended 2 Buddhist services. The first was a ritual called jukai when we received a small folded paper document which we subsequently learned was Buddhist precepts apparently for living a responsible life (which will no doubt stand us in good stead even if we may not have fully appreciated that during the service itself which was conducted inside a temple but in the pitch dark which was (if I’m going to be 100% honest) slightly nap-inducing!)).
The second ceremony was called otsutome which was held on-site in our shukubo at 6.30am. Before going to sleep, we’d discussed among ourselves whether we would get up for this service and had decided that we would and so set our alarms accordingly. It turned out, there was no need for this: at 6am the temple bells were rung enthusiastically, resolutely encouraging everyone staying there to stir from their futon mats and to go down to the temple and join the chief priest and the monks chanting Buddhist sutras in front of an image of Buddha. Again, it was a little hard to follow what exactly was going on but it was an interesting experience nonetheless (fortunately for this one, we weren’t in the pitch dark and we pretty much managed to stay awake throughout*, despite the early hour).
*only 1 of the 3 of us had a brief “nodding dog” moment [for our first 2 weeks in Japan we were joined by a good friend from the UK]