High in the mountains of Wakayama prefecture is a valley filled with monasteries, sacred to the Shingon tradition of esoteric Buddhism. It’s called 高野山 kouya-san, and it’s designated as a UNESCO world heritage site.
It is said that the valley is surrounded by 2 concentric rings of 8 peaks each, in the form of a mandala or a lotus flower, with the monastic site at the centre.
Koya-san first became a sacred place in the early 800s, when a monk called Kobo Daishi arrived from China and founded the Shingon branch of Buddhism. (He is also said to have invented the hiragana characters.) Various legends offer improbable explanations of why he chose this location. In any event, its inaccessibility has been an advantage in turbulent times.
Now, 1200 years later, the valley is home to dozens of monasteries and thousands of monks (not to mention, on any given day, thousands of tourists, pilgrims and visitors).
Lots of visitors stay overnight in the monasteries. They can eat vegetarian meals, take part in sitting meditation, and experience the simplicity and tranquility of monastic life.
For us, however, it was just a day-trip. We took the Nankai Koya line train to the end of the line, and then transferred to a cable car for the final steep ascent to the valley.
This unusual-looking steeply-raked carriage carries passengers between Gokurakubashi (539 metres) and Koyasan (867 m).
As we gained altitude, the rain turned to snow.
It would be a fascinating place to visit at any time, but today the thickly-falling snow made it even more beautiful and other-wordly.
The first place we visited was the Okunoin cemetery. It’s a huge area filled with mature cedars and monuments dating back over many centuries. It includes the graves of many of Japan’s most famous historical figures.
There is something very iconically Japanese about the sight of snow falling on cedars. David Guterson used this as the title of his novel about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
In the cemetery, we found a monument to termites, saying “termites, rest in peace”. This was erected by a pest-control company in memory of their millions of tiny victims.
There were also monuments erected by companies in honour of their deceased employees. This one, for example, is Nissan’s.
Some company monuments even have a letter box where current employees can drop in their business cards when they come to visit.
This monument has a nice statue of a dog.
Unfortunately, photography is banned in the central area of the cemetery. This especially sacred area, which contains the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi himself, is reached by crossing a humpbacked stone bridge. We went inside some of the temple buildings, one room of which was filled – filled! – with huge golden lanterns. In another a monk, seated with his back to us, was chanting.
Apart from the mausoleum area, this monument to the Lady Go is the largest in the cemetery.
We found this extraordinary stupa made up of jizo statues.
In addition to the usual red bibs, many of the jizo in the cemetery were wearing crocheted garments and woolly hats today, donated no doubt by kind-hearted people who were concerned that they might catch cold.
After lunch we briefly visited some of the temples. We were amused to see two people building a “snow jizo” in one of the temple car parks. Like a snowman, but with hands joined in prayer.
The simplicity and elegance of the Japanese temple architecture were heightened by the snow cover, their understated beauty all the more evident in a world reduced almost to black and white.
Finally, it was time for us to return to the cable car station and descend to the snow-free world below.