I want to escape the glare of lights and meditate on the finely raked lines of a Zen garden far from the urban vacuum and its soul-shattering décor. In Japan, there’s one convenience store, conbini, for every 2000 people and the glow radiating from countless conbinis reflects the fixation the Japanese have with retina-searing fluorescent lights. This bright light phenomenon, I have been informed, is one of many post-war reactions to the battle scar of darkness. Japan provides a stage for the struggle between tradition and modernity, each extolling their virtues in a globalized culture conditioned to favour ostentatious façades. Ancient Shinto and Buddhist temples and shrines compete with nauseating pachinko gambling centers, convenience stores and love hotels, all of these institutions offering a very different escape from the stressful daily reality of Japanese life. After eleven straight months in the city, it’s a losing battle: I’m hitchhiking to Mount Koya.
The mountaintop sanctuary of Koya-san sits just a few hours south of Osaka. A famed Buddhist priest known posthumously as Kobo Daishi (The Great Saint) returned from China in 816 to establish a monastic complex for Shingon Buddhist devotees and over the next twelve centuries the complex evolved into the town of Koya, besot with all the conveniences that ride the coat tails of progress. Koya maintains its mysticism however, surrounded by pagodas, temples, the largest Zen garden in Japan, and countless cemeteries filled with the bones of famed monks. Koya attracts serious Buddhist practitioners and casual observers wishing to stay in one of many shukubo temple lodgings. These temple stays are intended to provide a Japanese-style ashram experience where guests pay anywhere from $35 to $150 a night to sleep and eat in a working temple practicing the traditional, pious life of Shingon monks. The shukubo stay is a chance to witness their rituals and eat the humble vegetarian meal. I’m confident a pilgrimage to Mount Koya will give me the internal re-alignment I’m looking for.
I mainly hitch rides with elderly couples who listen to talk radio, and we glide the 500 km from Nagano prefecture to Osaka down the mega-freeways in comfortable silence. To experience the genteel comfort of Japanese daily life is to believe in an innate generosity of all human beings. In Canada, hitchhiking has gone the way of the Dodo, but in Japan, hitchhiking is a relatively safe means of transportation, predominantly favoured by foreigners. Once on the train from Osaka, I nestle into my seat for the next leg of my pilgrimage. Through rain and mist, the train snakes steadily between Wakayama prefecture’s mountains lit up with autumn foliage; stiff workweek expressions soften on the faces around me and and I relish the hush of sleepy passengers.
The final ascent is on a cable car which glides up to the summit of Mount Koya. As we creep up through the giant cedar trees, I sense the presence of generous and tranquil spirits. The cable car reaches its final destination and a high-pitched announcement bursts the quiet bubble. The other passengers and I enter a bright station awash with ads offering audio tour guides and souvenirs. I buy the required ticket and ride a bus up the remainder of the summit, reaching two massive pillars guarded by a stoic Buddha in a canopy of primeval cedars and cypresses. We pass statues and graves dusted with sooty moulds and adorned with incense and flowers, and the ancient Japan I envisioned comes to life, but just as the last traces of my hectic life melt away, the bus reaches a traffic light. Ancient Japan promptly exits as car-filled streets and grey, mundane buildings found in any average Japanese city appear.
I wander up and down the main drag. The monks who greet me at three different temples break the bad news: room rates are out of my tight budget and vacancy is limited. I’m becoming frustrated as the sun sinks behind the forests that rim Koya, my pilgrim’s confidence with it. I stop in front of a barbershop to consult a list of temple accommodation. A young woman’s face startles me, her mouth glowing with bright red lipstick. In first-rate English, she insists I step in for some respite from the chilly evening air.
Inside, an elderly woman carrying tea on a small black platter greets me and offers a seat on the sofa. The warm, trustworthy comfort of Japanese hospitality takes hold and the tea thaws my icy throat.
“Where are you from? You live in Japan?” The young woman, who introduced herself as Kyoko, inquires.
“I’m from Canada. I live in the Nagano prefecture.”
She bows forward cooing sweetly, “Oh, nice to meet you. Well I think you are looking for shukubo. I can help you find shukubo even very close to here. It’s no problem.”
Kyoko picks up the phone and dials in one quick, jaunty motion, speaks rapid Japanese to the party on the other line, then bangs the phone down.
“Only one real temple room left where my mother working,” she says. I’m relieved and always impressed by the speed and efficiency of Japanese people.
“We must go there now,” Kyoko says gesturing toward the door. I nod in agreement then follow her out, thanking her for the very kind gesture.
“Ah, yes, it’s a no problem. My pleasure. This is Japanese way, desyo?”
Enveloped by a peaceful silence, we walk down a forest path warmly lit with yellow lanterns, our feet crunching on soft gravel. Kyoko assures me I will be woken at 6 a.m. sharp.
“You like the early meditation, I think. Oh and you have Zen garden view. Very nice garden, yes.”
I become suspicious when I see there are no other shoes on the shelf in the entryway, but hush my judgment. This is Japan. She wouldn’t lie to my face, would she?
We shuffle into a receiving room and Kyoko gestures for me to sit, then finds her place and pours a cup of green tea.
“Price is ichi man, maybe one-hundred Canadian, yes, right, OK? It’s OK, desyo?” She says in a curt tone, a wide, fake smile across her Revlon-red lips. The price is high but I feel awkward bartering. I’m sensitive to the polite, non-negotiable nature of Japanese business practices, I’m in a holy setting, and it seems naive to barter for the last available room. Distracted by the lipstick now smeared across her teeth, I accept the price.
“Um, well, yes, OK. Ichi man. One hundred dollars. OK.”
On the way up the dingy stairs, I pass by two monks balancing a large tray of beer, laughing as they head toward a room filled with muffled voices and music.
“Must be your day off,” I mumble. Alone, I eat my bland vegetarian meal in the middle of a large, austere room. The sound of my slurping and crunching bounces off the beige paper walls. I retire to my typical Japanese lodging: a simple tatami floor, complimentary rice crackers and green tea on a platter, a thin futon mattress not yet laid out, and a medium-sized television set with remote. I peek out the large sliding doors and witness the promised Zen garden: it’s a small plot with one large stone. A subtle gust of wind blows through the door and above me a bright fluorescent lamp undulates its unpleasant glow across the room.
I’m woken at 7:30 a.m. by a different woman–she announces breakfast as I sleepily ask her about morning meditation. She shuffles hurriedly down the long silent hallway ignoring my broken Japanese. I collect my things and leave half the agreed rate beside the television, slipping silently out the front gates. I walk around the mass gravesites, totter quietly through museums, and peruse souvenir shops, maintaining a healthy distance from last night’s temple. At noon, I stop in a cafe for some tea–as I’m about to take a sip, I notice a red lipstick stain on the cup and inform the waitress. She sets down a fresh cup. As I bring the new cup toward my lips, I see it again: another lipstick stain. There is a small statue of Buddha on the table. I close my eyes and slurp.
How to Get There
32 min from Kansai Airport to Tengachaya Station by Nankai “Rap:t” (limited-stop express), and 35 min from Tengachaya to Gokurakubashi Station by Nankai Line “Koya” (limited-stop express).
From Tokyo Station, 2 hours 30 minutes by JR Tokaido Shinkansen Line to Shin-Osaka Station. From Shin-Osaka Station, take the subway to Namba Station, 15 minutes. From Namba Station, 1 hour 45 minutes by Nankai Tetsudo Line Express to Gokuraku-bashi Station. From Gokuraku-bashi, take Koya-san Cable to Koya-san, 5 minutes.
The Nankai Electric Railway makes 4 round trips a day by Limited Express, and runs Express trains at about 30-min intervals between Osaka Namba Station and Kôyasan Station. It takes 1 hr 40 min by Limited Express, and around 2 hours by Express. It takes about 2 hours from Wakayama as well.