Koyasan and Osaka

I haven’t been able to update my blog for a while due to the lack of a computer to which I can upload pictures.  During this time, I got a request to add more photos and talk less, but this entry will be long-winded.  I’ll try to add more pictures if I can.

The last time I wrote, I was leaving Kyoto in the morning to go to Koyasan.  Until journeying to Koyasan, I did not know much about Buddhism (nor do I now), but I got a good dose of it in Koyasan.  To get to Koyasan in itself is no easy feat.  It is quite isolated through a chain of mountains.  First I took a train from Kyoto to the end of its line.  There was nothing at this stop but a bathroom.  There was an exit that went down a gravel road which dead ended about fifteen feet away at the foot of a mountain.  I didn’t really understand why they even bothered to build an exit.  Next, I had to take a cable car up the side of the mountain to Koyasan Station.  From there, I took a bus to the Buddhist Temple I was to stay in that night.  I will go into the story of Koyasan in a moment, but it is a very holy place.  It is a very small city and there are no hotels there, at least I did not see any.  There are 117 temples in the small city of which some offer lodging.  This is the only way to stay the night in Koyasan.  The town has a population of 3800 people and with so many temples, you can guess what the most popular occupation is.  Yes, over 1000 of the people are monks.  My temple was a somewhat important one named Shojoshinin Temple.  Here, four Buddhist monks tend to the grounds and offer prayers early in the morning.  When I checked in, I learned I was expected to attend their pray service at 6 am the next morning.  That was not the greatest surprise in the world.

The Koyasan area was first founded in the early ninth century by a monk named Kukai.  Kukai was quite an intelligent and amazing man.  He was born on the island of Shikoku (south of the western part of Honshu), but at the age of seventeen he found his way to Nara, the capital of Japan at the time, to study Buddhism at the national university.  Kukai was unhappy with this, however, as he sought Buddhist knowledge for spiritual enlightenment.  At the time in Japan, however, Buddhism was strictly studied as a philosophy, like a reasoning or logic class.  He became frustrated after his studies and began to wander Japan seeking isolated mountain ranges where he chanted mantras for hours looking for answers to his questions.  During a dream, Kukai saw a man who told him that the Mahavairocana Sutra was what he was looking for and that this text would be the key to his questions.  Kukai quickly found a transcript of the sutra, but found that since it was relatively new to Japan, most of it was in untranslated Sanscrit.  A few years later, Kukai participated in a government sponsored trip to China in order to study the Mahavairocana Sutra.  Of the five ships dispatched to China, his was the only one which made it all the way to China.  He soon met a Chinese Mater named Hui-kuo who introduced Kukai to esoteric Buddhism and also had translated many texts from Sanscrit to Chinese, a language which Kukai was fluent.  Kukai found a religion in the practice of esoteric Buddhism and brought it back to Japan.  He taught esoteric Buddhism and gained many followers as well as was granted several posts as a state sponsored monk.  In 816, Kukai was granted permission to develop the land called Mt. Koya.  There is no mountain called Mt. Koya but rather there are many mountains surrounding the area which are said to look like the flowers of a lotus.  For Kukai, this was the perfect place for his monastery.  He built Kongobuji as a Shingon temple, the sect which he founded.

Kongobuji and the several other places in the surrounding areas have now been declared UNESCO World Heritage sites.  Kukai spent the last years of his life here in Koyasan, but according to legend, he is not truly dead.  According to Shingon teachings, Kukai went into an eternal meditation in order to take the suffering away from his followers.  It is said that his body still lives in a shrine dedicated to him in the Koyasan Cemetary.

There, priests still bring him two meals a day and very recently have started to bring him noon-time snacks as well.  The inner temple in the Koyasan Cemetery is considered one of the holiest places on earth for the Shingon sect of Buddhism.  Many pilgrims come here from all over Japan only after visiting 8o temples in Shikoku to complete the pilgrimage.  The inner temple has a very simple exterior, but the inside is very elaborate, adorned with golden statues of Buddha and a golden altar.  Around the back of the temple is the crypt in which Kukai’s body lays to rest.  When I went down with my guide, there was a monk there offering Kukai some rice cakes.  Since this ground is so holy, pictures are not permitted within an radius of about 200 meters from the temple so I have nothing to show for this part of the trip.  But the cemetery itself was interesting.  There are two parts to it, the old and the new.  The old part has memorials of many well known daimyo and their wives or mothers.  Some of these daimyo include Tokugawa Ieyasu and Oda Nobunaga.  While their physical graves are not here, there is a memorial sending them to the next life with hope for a good reincarnation.


In the new part of the cemetary, many well-known Japanese companies use it for advertising, constructing large monuments that have something to do with their companies.  For example, a coffee company constructed a memorial to remember all the ”lost” cups of coffee that have been consumed by their customers, and an extermination company made a monument honoring all the termites that they have killed.  This was the more comical part of the cemetery.

After I got back to the temple, I was served dinner overlooking a pond on the side of the temple as well as a mountain close by in the background.  There was no noise at all.  No street traffic, no voices, just the drip of the water into the pond and the sound of the birds.  It was extremely peaceful.  I quickly went to bed afterwards to get ready for the early morning prayer service.

I was awoken by the ringing a loud bell.  I quickly threw on a sweater and found the ceremony room.  Inside, I was relieved to find that the observers had chairs to sit on rather than have to sit on my knees for the entirety of the service.  The monks processed in and took their places at four small desks aligned in front of the alter.  The Shojoshinin Temple was unique in that their main Buddha is Kobodaishi (Kukai’s posthumous name).  This is because Kukai supposedly stayed the night at Shojoshinin the night before he went into his eternal meditation.  Anyway, the monks opened their books and began to chant in short syllabic sounds, which I assumed to be different Chinese characters.  The chants repeated many times for about 45 minutes.  This was a very different experience for me.  Western religions all involve dialogue or singing.  However, Buddhism seems to be more about individual achievement.  While the monks aid each other in this goal, overall, they work towards their own enlightenment.  When the service was finally over, the other observers and myself got down on the ground and bowed, heads to the ground, to the monks who did the same back to us.  We were then treated to a vegetarian breakfast and then it was time to check out.

I made the long trip back to Osaka where I was supposed to tour by myself late in the afternoon, but as I was tired, I took a nap until my samurai sword class at 7 pm.  I had no idea what this would entail, but I went hoping for the best.  When I got there, I discovered that the class operated in a dance studio and was filled with mostly younger kids around the age of fourteen or fifteen.  The teachers spoke very little English but all of them were very kind and had smiles on their faces all the time.  I did not bring any work out clothes with me to Japan, so when I showed up in jeans, the instructors dressed me in a samurai kimono.  That was an interesting experience.  I got to learn a little bit of swordsmanship in the same attire the samurai would during the long history of Japan.  The class was interesting.  First I got to work with one instructor individually until I had learned the very introductory basics.  He taught me five simple moves, each of which had a specific name.  Once I had memorized those, we were put into pairs and he showed me how to defend these attacks.  Then we waked through these situations in pairs.  I quickly learned that the art of swordsmanship was more like a dance than fighting.  Every attack had one or two ways to counter it, and every counter had one or two ways to counter that.  Your reaction determines the others response and so forth.  It was very different than I expected, but very fun.

At the very end of the class, the master called everyone together and announced it was my first and last day.  He let me pretend to fight off everyone in the class and then they all fell down as if I had actually killed them in battle.   The master had quite a bit of jokes throughout the class and everyone else was very kind and helpful.  I had a great time and it will be something that I won’t forget.

When I got back, I passed out.  The class was a lot more of a work out than I expected it to be.  In addition, wearing a kimono was really hot.

This morning, I met my guide for at tour of Osaka Castle.  The castle was a very important one in Japanese history.  Originally it was constructed by Toyotomi Hideyoshi.  Hideyoshi was a peasant who became samurai through his service for Oda Nobunaga.  Hideyoshi was the first person to unite all of Japan under his rule after his master, Nobunaga, had failed.  Since Hideyoshi was not born samurai, he could not accept the title of Shogun.  He had to settle for the lesser title of Kwampaku, and later on Taiko.  However, his power and influence were the same regardless of his title.  Hideyoshi designed his castle to be the greatest of its time.  He wanted it impervious to any attack.  While it was a grand castle, he failed in the impervious part.  Once Hideyoshi died, and possession of the castle was left to his only son Toyotomi Hideyori, Tokugawa Ieyasu attacked Osaka Castle starting the Winter Siege of Osaka.  Even though Hideyori was outnumbered almost three to one, he was successful in fending off Ieyasu’s attack.  Ieyasu had succeeded in crossing the outer moat to the castle, however and filled it in.  Later the next year, Hideyoshi started to reconstruct the outer moat and Ieyasu mobilized his army and again attacked Osaka Castle.  This time the castle fell and Hideyoshi committed seppuku inside, ending the Toyotomi line.  Ieyasu took control of the Osaka area and rebuilt the main keep which he had destroyed in the Summer Siege of Osaka.  However, 60 years later, the main keep was again burnt down when it was struck by lightening.  Nothing stood there until 1926 when the keep was rebuilt, modeling Hideyoshi’s design as a gift for the Japanese royal family.  Now the castle overlooks all of Osaka for everyone to see.  Inside, is a modern museum which details the events from the beginning of Toyotomi Hedeyoshi’s life until the end of the life of the second Tokugawa Shogun, Tokugawa Hidetada.

After my tour was over, I boarded my train to Takamatsu in the Kagawa Prefecture as I slowly make my way to Nagasaki in Kyushu.  I stay in Takamatsu for two nights before making my way to Miyajima which is famous for the Itsukushima Shrine.  This is the shrine I used for my picture at the top of my blog.  It is also another UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Keep reading and see you soon!


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