I slowly counted the crisp one hundred dollar bills and wondered if this was some kind of Japanese monastic test. Perhaps my integrity was being tested? In the past, the resolve of would-be Buddhist acolytes was tried by beating them every time they knocked on the monastery door and asked for admission.
I’d just arrived with my husband at the Fudoin, an old temple lodging which forms part of the esoteric Shingon sect of Buddhism on Mount Koya, one of Japan’s holiest mountains, about 50km south of Osaka.
I’d nervously slipped my hand in to check that it was empty. As I did so, I thought of the great dewy cobwebs suspended between the towering dark trees that I’d seen on our train journey up the mountain
Outside, heavy raindrops pattered down and autumnal clouds swirled through the dense cryptomeria forest. A young monk showed us to a dark, damp smelling tatami-matted room which had that essential monastic luxury in Japan: an ensuite loo. In fact we had a shower too, but I was absorbed with organising our few possessions, and had been intent on putting our passports and Japan National Rail Passes in the room safe, which reminded me of the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother’s pain box in Dune. I’d nervously slipped my hand in to check that it was empty. As I did so, I thought of the great dewy cobwebs suspended between the towering dark trees that I’d seen on our train journey up the mountain. I hate spiders and have a natural dislike of putting my hand anywhere where they might lurk. Instead, I felt the smooth touch of paper. Thinking it some forgotten receipt, I pulled it out to discard. It was an unmarked envelope filled with hundreds of dollars.
The monk returned with a pot of tea and some Japanese biscuits. Since he didn’t speak English and I don’t speak Japanese, I pushed the envelope and notes into his hands and mimed that I’d found them in the safe. He looked bemused. I looked like an idiot.
After he left, we decided that the monks would either consider it a very generous donation or they’d wait to be contacted by the owner. In Japan, honesty is paramount (although I was warned that my umbrella might get stolen – seemingly, umbrellas are the one exception to this rule).
Since dinner would be served at 6pm (the Japanese, like Americans, eat early), we headed out in the warm rain to explore the surrounding temples – umbrellas firmly in hand. As I stepped out from our room and sniffed the sweet mountain air I was filled with that sense of pleasure you get when discovering somewhere utterly dreamy. The distant sounds of monks about their daily chores only emphasised my feeling that, contrary to my friends’ anxieties, the Fudoin was an inspiring place.
Koya-san, as it is known in Japan, has been a popular destination for Japanese pilgrims for over 1100 years. Even when the poet Matsuo Basho travelled in the seventeenth century, it was a tough 800m climb above sea level, through dense, bear-ridden forest to reach the cluster of monasteries in the high mountain valley. Today, groups of pilgrims, often dressed in white with conical hats and a bell staff in hand, can be met touring the many temples. In the early morning they reverentially tread the gloomy forest paths of the vast Okunoin cemetery, past thousands of mossy stone stupas and ancient Jizo statues with their pink-daubed cheeks, until they reach the glimmering Toro-do (Hall of Lanterns), filled with ten thousand flickering oil lamps. Gold glimmers in the dark recesses of this vast building.
After paying their respects they will continue to Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum. Kukai, the monk who founded the religious community at Koya-san in 816AD, became known as Kobo Daishi after his death – although some believe he is merely meditating in his tomb.
The mini-marts proved perfect for stocking up on supplies of our latest Japanese addiction, soft, chewy peach flavoured Fettuccine gummies
Koya-san is reminiscent of the Indian hill stations I visited in my youth. A single main road, lined with little shops, galleries and vegetarian cafes, links the surrounding temples and tombs. The mini-marts proved perfect for stocking up on supplies of our latest Japanese addiction, soft, chewy peach flavoured Fettuccine gummies. Our pockets stuffed, we wandered around the myriad different temples, overshadowed by the towering cryptomeria trees, some said to be a thousand years old.
All was hushed and quiet in the gurgling rain. We sat under the sweeping cedar eaves of one of the old temples in the Garan, Koya-san’s central temple complex and watched a monk splashing through the rain in his saffron robes. Some things never change.
When I’d mentioned to Japanese friends that we were planning to stay overnight at a monastery at Koya-san, their eyes had widened in surprise: “Ah, that will be an experience – have you ever eaten temple food?” I had the distinct impression that they were not overly fond of it. Yet at its best, the traditional Buddhist vegetarian cuisine – shojin ryori – is delicious. Our dinner was served by the monks at low tables in the slightly chilly old hall at Fudoin. Sesame tofu and mountain-dried “Koya” tofu formed an essential part of our meal, which was made up of a succession of vegetarian dishes, many flavoured with a broth made from kelp and shiitake mushrooms. We sucked up our noodles in an appreciatively noisy fashion and savoured the varied array of mountain vegetables while gazing around the hall’s exquisite painted screens.
It was dark and wet outside and by eight o’clock we were faced with the problem of how to entertain ourselves – given that our futons were spread in readiness on the floor of our room and there was nowhere in the residence very conducive to reading (one of the curious aspects of Japanese rooms is that they tend to have quite harsh overhead lighting. No wonder Junichiro Tanizaki bemoaned the loss of candlelight in 1933 in his evocative essay In Praise of Shadows). Exhausted, I took the only sensible course of action at this ridiculously early hour: I fell asleep.
It was cold and misty, but very beautiful as the monks slowly chanted their sutras in the soft light
As dawn broke the next day we were led to the prayer hall at 5am for the early morning service. It was cold and misty, but very beautiful as the monks slowly chanted their sutras in the soft light. The Japanese visitors joined in the service, while the western visitors sat quietly and watched.
Afterwards, as we all headed along the passage to the dining hall for a proper Japanese (vegetarian) breakfast, my heart skipped a beat. Standing directly in my path was an enormous green hunter spider. It had frozen on the floor as the others walked past. Such was the sense of peace about the place, I managed to quietly pass it.
Nothing was ever said to us about the money, but deep down I felt I had passed a test. Honesty and honour had been satisfied. C
Fudoin, 1-8-21 Honmachi, Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture 561-0852, Japan
+81 6-6863-2120, fudouin.or.jp