In the footsteps of Buddha
'The purpose of meditation is purposelessness.' The words of Ryusho Soeda make little sense to me as I sit in the darkness of a winter's dawn, numbed by sub-zero temperatures and facing a Buddhist altar veiled in incense smoke.
Soeda-san is the head priest of Rengejo-in, a 600-year-old shukubo, or temple inn, on the monastery mountain of Koyasan, on Japan's western Honshu island. The Kii mountains of Wakayama prefecture, of which this 1,000-metre-high forested massif forms a part, have long been regarded as an abode of the gods.
Each morning at 5.55am the shukubo's tannoy system croaks to life, calling to morning meditation and prayer its 15 resident monks and any pilgrims, or tourists, who happen to be lodging overnight. I fail miserably to see Soeda-san's 'purposeless purpose' as I crawl from beneath a toasty warm futon and into a courtyard filled with fresh snow and frosted pine trees. But there is no time to dwell on winter's wrath. I am late for an appointment with Buddha.
'The time it takes for a stick of incense to burn down is the amount of time you should spend meditating each day,' Soeda-san recommends. Seated in the perfumed gloom of Rengejo-in's temple, overlooked by images of fierce-looking deities and lulled by the sound of murmuring monks, I begin to warm to this ritual and try to empty my mind of all things trivial. It is a discipline many foreign visitors enthusiastically throw themselves into (surely with more success than me) during an overnight trip to Koyasan, where more than 50 shukubo offer bed, bath and Buddhist cuisine in historic temple surroundings.
Koyasan is the home of the Shingon-shu (meaning 'true word') sect, which follows an esoteric brand of Buddhism considered to be Japan's oldest. The monastic community was founded by a monk named Kukai who, in AD816, returned from China after studying Tantric Buddhism and built a temple for meditation and religious study. Known by his posthumous Buddhist name, Kobo-daishi, he remains one of Japan's most revered Buddhist figures and his mountain retreat, 1,200 years on, attracts more than half a million pilgrims and tourists every year.
The most popular approach to Koyasan is by train from Osaka, a two-hour ride up Wakayama's steep valley sides, through bamboo forests and hamlets. Visitors are delivered to Gokurakubashi ('Bridge to Paradise') station. A short ride aboard a cable car precedes arrival at the mountain top.
'The temples are the town and the town, the temples', says Kurt Kubli Genso, a Swiss Buddhist and resident priest at Muryoko-in, another shukubo popular with foreign tourists. 'Don't be in too much of a hurry to seek out serenity and spirituality. Let them find you,' he advises. The amiable Genso leads his guests in meditation at 6am each day and guides them round the temples on, for him, two meals - breakfast and lunch - a day.
Koyasan's 4,000-odd inhabitants are equally friendly and hard-working, busying themselves with scripture study, temple maintenance and the daily running of the shukubo. The sight of shaven-headed novices shovelling snow from inn entrances on crisp winter mornings is common, as is the sound of the clip-clopping wooden sandals of older monks seeking alms in the streets.
Others not directly connected to the monastery operate a bevy of small-town services, including restaurants to fortify hungry pilgrims, grocery shops, a petrol station and even a karaoke bar to keep the faithful in good spirits.
At the heart of this self-contained community lies the grand, ninth-century pavilion of Kongobuji. Today, it serves as the headquarters of Shingon Buddhism, followed by 10 million devotees at 4,000 temples throughout Japan.
Koyasan's winding streets host 117 sub-temples but the beacon for visitors is the Garan, the central monastic complex where Kobo-daishi began building his sanctuary. Fires and typhoons have exacted a heavy toll on the original wooden structures, many of which have been rebuilt several times. To stroll through the Garan today is to walk among giants. The towering eastern and western stupas, the 48-metre-high vermilion-coloured Daito, or Great Stupa, which serves as seminary, and even Kobo-daishi's former residence, the elegant Miedo Hall, dwarf all who step up to them.
On winter evenings, stone lamps light the snow-covered pathways through the precinct. Save for the sound of the odd monk scurrying between temples or the dull thud of snow dropping from eves, only the mountain winds are audible.
The Garan is also home to Koyasan's timekeeper, the Bell of the Great Stupa, an enormous bronze bell, cast in 1547, whose deep, resonating peal can be heard five times a day throughout the town. A brisk 15-minute walk from the Garan takes one to the entrance to the Okunoin holy precinct and the Koyasan cemetery, where more than 300,000 tombstones are spread among groves of ancient cedar trees. Koyasan is said to be Japan's most restful place for spirits and it is here that the ashes of the powerful shoguns, Tokugawa and Toyotomi, along with those of slain samurai, former prime ministers, victims of the Tokyo earthquake and fire of 1923 and even popular kabuki actors have been interred.
To appreciate the Garan and Okunoin requires time and footwork, so many pilgrims and tourists hang their hats overnight in Koyasan. For centuries it has been the function of shukubo to provide lodging and simple vegetarian fare to such travellers - though you don't have to be a Buddhist to stay in one.
A shukubo operates as part of a temple complex and individual rooms will typically contain tatami mats and a futon and may open onto a manicured garden of bamboo and pine trees, or a pond filled with ogling carp. Having your futon unrolled, pillows fluffed and roasted green tea with sweet omochi rice cakes waiting for you after a long day of meditation and temple touring is service well worth the tariff of 6,000 yen (HK$387) to 9,500 yen per person a night, or roughly the same as that of a city hotel.
The highlight of a shukubo stay is sampling shojin-ryori, or devotion cuisine, which is said to help purify mind and spirit. This Japanese-style Buddhist cuisine has been dished up to the hungry faithful by Koyasan's monks for more than 11 centuries. Prepared without meat, fish, onions or garlic, it is presented in a vast array of vegetarian dishes, from brothy miso soups and homemade sesame-seed tofu to tempura-style vegetables, pickled seaweed and steamed forest ferns.
At Rengejo-in, dinner is served: novice monks dole out steaming rice from a huge wooden barrel, pour green tea and keep up a steady flow of cold beer and I am left to contemplate elaborately painted door panels depicting the epic travels of deities.
Before retiring for the night, the temple-weary tourist is compelled to visit the communal bath to trade tall tales with fellow bathers and soothe aching feet. Bath etiquette is tricky at best. If, like me, you have found your bath slippers and tied your yukata bathrobe without it unravelling in front of the head priest, then you have been enlightened.
Getting there: Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific.com) flies daily to Osaka. Nankai Express trains depart hourly for Koyasan from Osaka's Nankai Namba station. The trip takes two hours. A night at the Rengejo-in shukubo (temple inn) costs 9,500 yen (HK$620), including breakfast and dinner. See www.shukubo.jp/eng or call 81 736 56 2233.