Getting Monastic in Koya-San

Even in Buddhist temples, you exit through the gift shop. This was the case in many of our temple visits and our overnight stay in one was no different. But we forgive them, somebody has to pay for their cute little pagodas.

Cortney and I ventured out of Kyoto for a one night stay in a Buddhist temple on Mount Koyasan. We took a two hour train and then a cute little cable car up the side of the mountain. The town was touristy, but it was mostly Japanese tourists, so we still felt adventurous. We ambled through the town center, marveling at the changing foliage. Then we turned our attention to the famous cemetery just outside of town. We are big fans of cemeteries, and this one was great. They have little stone idols all over the place that are dressed by visitors in small aprons and hats. They also leave different offerings, usually incense, but occasionally “Hello Kitty dolls” and “beer cans.”

At 5pm it was back to our guest house for the evening where our monks instructed us that we would have bath time and “special” dinner. Not wanting to anger them or their gods we changed into robes and slippers a size too small. We were unsure if they would give us pedicures or shave our heads, but in the end, it was another hot Japanese bath. After which, dinner was set and we were escorted to a private room with special trays on the floor. Both the eating and sleeping arrangements are on tatami mats. A constant reminder that I am not very flexible.

Dinner was in adherence with the Buddhist style. Strictly vegan and a few other items were banned, such as garlic and leek because the tastes are too strong and may “excite the senses.” Also, the food must be prepared in different ways; one fried dish, one steamed, one pickled, and so on. With all those restrictions, you would think the meal would leave much to be desired, but that of course, was not the case. The food was delicious and all the different styles complimented each other. We had tempura eggplant, seaweed salad, pickled vegetables, and even a tofu dessert. The only thing missing was a nice red wine, but I assumed that was a rule breaker, or the monks just kept the goods for themselves.

After a pleasant night on our mats, we were invited to morning prayer at 7am. The four visitors kneeled by two monks who chanted for about 25 minutes. The whole scene took place in an incense filled room with over one hundred lanterns. The younger monk showed us around the prayer room pointing out each item and what it represented. It was all very spiritual and we were feeling as enlightened and far from western culture as we would ever be, when the elderly monk ended with, “and here is a gift chop stick set, which can you buy for only 10,000 yen (100 U.S.), it will help us build a new roof and bring you much luck.” Well, it seems some practices are universal.

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