Posted by: mariabro | May 23, 2012

Meditative Moment

When you need a little serenity and a break from the bright lights of Tokyo, Japan offers many weekend getaways that will revive and refresh you.  For my weekend retreat I headed to Koyasan, considered one of the most sacred areas in Japan.  The mountaintop village is the home of the Shingon sect of esoteric Buddhism and dates back nearly 1200 years.  Koyasan’s many Buddhist temples offer tourists the chance to stay overnight and experience a taste of the monastic life, a little like a monk reality show, but with a sense of authenticity.

I arrived early, one rainy Saturday morning at Tokyo station to catch the Shinkansen to Shin Osaka.  As I boarded the bullet train I realized that I had left my good umbrella at the coffee shop in the station.  My weekend had begun in a rather inauspicious way.  But as the train picked up speed, I started to relax as I watched the landscape whiz by.  I enjoyed my solitude and my meditative buzz as I stared out the window.  After a few fairly easy train changes and about four hours, I finally felt like I was getting out of the city.  The landscape changed to deep bamboo forests like you’d imagine in a fairy tale, and still-blooming sakura trees.   Near the end of the journey I took a smaller train that climbed the winding, narrow rails higher and higher.  It ascended through dark tunnels and mist-covered mountains.  The final ascent was in a cable car to an altitude of about 900 meters.

Once you arrive at Koyasan, you can take a bus (330 yen) or a taxi (1700 yen) to your shukubo or temple lodging.  Check in time is 2:00pm, although they will store your bags if you arrive early.  I arrived right at 2:00pm and was greeted by a smiling, young monk named Chokei.  He showed me to my room and told me the meditation class I signed up for would be at 4:30, then dinner in my room at 5:30.  After freshening up I took a short walk and stopped in at two temples along the main street.  I recommend purchasing a temple book.  This is a lovely souvenir and can be used at any temple in Japan.  For 300 yen you can have your book signed with a unique calligraphy design from each temple.

I returned back to my shukubo just in time for the meditation class.  About 20 other guests of all nationalities joined me.  Instructions were given in English and Japanese and then we were left on our own for 40 minutes.  I don’t think I’ve ever done 40 minutes of meditation, let alone with 20 strangers.  But it went surprisingly quickly and seemed very special in the temple surroundings with the smell of incense lingering in the air.

One of those strangers was 26 year-old, American medical student, Samanda Fillip.  We chatted after the meditation session about why she had chosen to visit Koyasan.“I needed to find a solace before the craziness of medical school.  I needed to take care of myself before I started taking care of other people.”  It seemed to be a magical place for most of the people I talked to over the weekend.

Dinner arrived at 5:30 and was as well-presented and delicious as any kaiseki meal I have eaten anywhere.  It adhered to the vegetarian diet requirements of the monks but could also be accompanied by sake or beer, should you desire.

After dinner I signed up for the night tour of Koyasan cemetery.  It is the largest and one of the most significant cemeteries in Japan, home to an estimated 200,000 tombs, including those of famous Samurai and the founding father of the Shingon sect, Kobo Daishi.

This was definitely the highlight of the visit.  We toured the huge cemetery at night, walking approximately 4 km through the lantern-lit paths, surrounded by towering 800 year-old cedar trees, accompanied by our guide, Chokei.  At the tomb of Kobo Daishi, Chokei had us stand with him as he recited some chants in a soft, melodic voice.  French tourist, Jacques Weiss, brought his three children to visit Koyasan.  He says, “It was magical, I have no words for it.  Absolutely unforgettable.”

When we returned back to the temple we were invited to take a relaxing onsen before bed.  After a comfortable sleep in a tatami mat room, I awoke early to attend the 6:30am services.  The sky had cleared and I stepped out into the fresh mountain air, the sun shining in a bright blue sky.  As I kneeled in the temple and listened to the soothing chanting of the monks, I felt truly refreshed.

The monk who taught us the meditation class joked that we may not find enlightenment in one session.  But as I headed back to Tokyo I had a sense of having experienced something both special and spiritual, and a lesson in karma.  My umbrella?  It was waiting for me at the coffee shop when I arrived back at Tokyo station.

How to get there:

Tokyo – Shin Osaka – Shinkansen (I left at 8:30 to arrive by 2:00pm)

Transfer to Midosuji subway line – direction Tennoji (15 min) to Namba

Leave Namba by express of Nankai Koya line, direction of Hashimoto

Get off at Hashimoto and switch to a train to Koyasan

Arrive at Gokurakubashi

Take Cable car from Gokurakubashi to Koyasan (5 min)

Temple Lodging

English-Friendly Shukubo (can be booked online in English)


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