It was not exactly Koya-san’s fault that the best parts of my visit were getting there and back. The train rides were great – once we left Hashimoto the little local wound its way laboriously up through forested mountains, the sea of trees broken only occasionally by rural communities where the farmhouses clustered together amid the rice fields. At the end of the tracks I switched to a cable car, rising almost vertically higher still, and then to a (rather expensive) bus, which delivered me to my temple – if you spend the night on Koysa-san (aka Mt. Koya) you do it in a temple.
But good mountain scenery was only one of my hopes for the visit: I also looked forward to at least serenity, if not spirituality, from my temple stay, along with some good vegetarian food, and an atmospheric, even eerie, visit to the famous cemetery Oku-no-in, where all Japanese Buddhists hope at least a piece of their earthly remains will be buried, to await the arrival of the future Buddha. These additional expectations were not met.
Part of the problem came down to scheduling: I arrived at my temple, the Rengejo-in, at 15:00, check-in time, to discover an unexpected 17:00 meditation, followed by dinner, after which the buses stopped. In the morning, an 06:00 religious ceremony would be followed by breakfast and check out, leaving me little time to catch the bus that would be the start of a marathon trip to Tokushima, on Shikoku. In the end I skipped breakfast, which gave me a rushed 40 minutes at Oku-no-in – in bright sunshine, rather than gathering gloom.
I had known about the 06:00 ceremony, but not about the meditation – if I had known I might have tried to get to Koya-san earlier. The other problems were in no way my fault – except perhaps, by selecting the wrong temple, but it’s hard to know which is the right one, especially when the first requirement is that they will accept a single foreign traveler. Initially, things looked good. The temple was quiet, the gardens were beautiful, and my room came with tatami mats and a kotatsu heater.
But, but, but… I returned from a brief trip to the village – just to look around – to find a tour bus disgorging its passengers! I would be sharing my temple experience with a fair-sized tour group (of Israelis, it turned out). Not at all what I had in mind. Plus, this particular group had no idea how to behave during meditation – people kept getting up and leaving, making a lot of noise in the process. Then a large guy moved next to me, and when his knee stayed touching mine I destroyed all the serenity I had built up in rush of anger (jabbing him with a sharp fingernail did get the knee removed, though).
Meditation was followed by a lengthy sermon, which ensured that dinner was served cold – tempura, tea and soup were all stone cold. I had expected meals to be served in my room. Instead, we ate in a large dining area, although I discovered the next morning that the Japanese guests had their own section, apart from the foreigners. (I did not appreciate being segregated.) I imagine the Japanese were spared the long talk by the 90 year old mother of the current head monk, mostly about the hardships of life in Koya-san during W.W.II. I couldn’t quite make out whether the Americans were being regarded as responsible, or as saviors.
I had actually enjoyed the meditation (until the incident of the intrusive Israeli), but I found the morning ceremony a complete waste of time. In fact, I thought the whole thing might well be a fake for foreigners – until I noticed that there were Japanese guests there. The room was festooned with dangly gilt things, quite unlike the one next door used for the monks’ private observances. The session ended with another long sermon, all in Japanese.
I had met a couple from Amsterdam on the train up to Koya-san, and when we met again on the train down we compared notes. They hadn’t been entirely happy with their temple, the Eko-in, either. Their food was served in their room, but it didn’t have a heater. However, I think I would have preferred Eko-in, as it was much closer to the cemetery, and an evening walking tour was offered.
I chose Rengejo-in from guidebook recommendations, and because I could book a single room through the Japanese Guest Houses site, and it’s certainly true that the room, the gardens and the Japanese bath were all fine (but in the morning only cold water was available). I would suggest that anyone considering a visit find out exactly what schedule their intended temple keeps, how big it is, how the food is served, and whether there are heaters. But even though I didn’t have the experience I expected, I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone else from going.