Kumano Kodo Kohechi Pilgrimage Part 2
Read Part 1 here.
It’s Monday morning of Day 3, and the rain is at its peak. As we reach the summit, the path is just wide enough for two feet. On one side lies a mountain face. The other, a steep cliff thick with trees. One false misstep could mean some serious trouble as there’s no reception 1,000 kilometers high in the mountains. My friend and I check the map to make sure we are going the right way. As we venture forward a few hundred meters, we spot a hand-made sign on the trail, “You are going the right way.”
As we ate our breakfast and watched the morning forecast, my friend and I thought that we could beat the rain to our next hotel. “Hopefully you’ll just be able to miss it!” the Minshuku owner said as we departed.
No more than a half hour in, it began to rain.
Hiking Time: ~5 Hours
Mileage: ~19 km
While the rain was not terrible, it was constant enough to be annoying. With no notable sites on the trail, the only thing we could focus on was staying dry. While the climbs on Day 3 were not as harsh as the previous two, the patches of wet leaves and numerous puddles made the trail a little more dangerous than intended.
When we reached the peak, we entered a small wooden shack provided for hikers. Built with elevated tatami mats inside, one could take shelter there if needed, as long the lingering smell of tobacco was not too much.
Although we were hungry, the both of us wanted noting more than to get out of the damn rain. Having a quick lunch, we began our decent, eagerly looking forward to the onsen we reserved for the night. Day 3 was where my knees really started to get to me, as the steep zig-zag for the last five-or-so kilometers added a lot of strain. I have to say, I am still feeling a bit of stress in my knees from that day as I write this even now.
As we arrived at Nosegawa Onsen, the bright, tall receptionist welcomed us in his incredibly low voice. As we were brought to our room, he informed us about the local area.
“We have the smallest population in Nara Prefecture!” he said with authority. “And this is the first elevator to ever be installed in the area,” he said as we entered the carriage just large enough for three people.
“Also, could I ask you if my English is correct?” he unexpectedly added.
While I certainly don’t have a problem with people practicing with me, to be honest, I think this was the first time I was actually asked for feedback. More often than not people will just blitz into using English or speak none of it at all, perhaps making offhand comments about “how bad they are.” The receptionist informed us a lot more foreigners were coming to the hotel as of late, and he wanted to make sure that he was communicating correctly. I think he was doing pretty spectacularly, to say the least.
We finished the night with a set dinner featuring the local river fish, Amago, a nice dip in the baths before bed, and plenty of beers from the vending machine right by the room. It was a trial enough to go up and down stairs, so we stocked up with as much as we could.
Hiking Time: ~5 hours
Mileage: ~17 km
After eating breakfast and grabbing our things, the hotel was kind enough to drive us to the beginning of our last trail. Finally, the signs began to have kilometer markers for Koya-San.
Although it was cold and cloudy, it never rained like the day before. In fact, walking through the clouds at the top of the mountain was one of my favorite parts of the trip.
Most of the trail was fairly flat until a third of the way through, which included an unfortunate steep decline and incline. Although discouraging, we knew we were close as we began to hear the faint chimes of temple bells.
Funny enough, we were warned and saw plenty of signs warning hikers of bears, but we did not see any trace of them. Honestly, I was a little bit more worried about the potential boar encounter, but we never saw nor met any furry friends while on the trail.
Then, suddenly, we saw the roofs of houses, the roofs of temples, and heard the sounds of buses and tour groups.
We made it!
We made our way to Shojoshin-in, the temple we would stay at for the night. Setting up a reservation for a temple stay at Koya-San is pretty easy, and only requires a reservation request form filled out on the Koyasan Shukubo Association’s website.
As we made our way into the lobby, two of the monks immediately turned to me and asked, “Have you been to Shikoku?” Although donning my Pilgrim vest and carrying my walking stick the entire trip, no one else we encountered even mentioned my garb. It was nice to finally be able to talk with someone about the other pilgrimage though (besides my very gracious friend who had to hear my many comparisons). Of course, my story garnered much gratitude from the monks.
Shojoshin-in seems to be one of the temples that takes in the most foreigners, as we were accompanied by 15+ other travelers during dinner. Being honest, I have to say I was surprised at the amount of other foreigners I saw at Koya-San. This is a bad thing, but the clientele at the various shops and restaurants seemed to be either A) European or B) older Japanese folks part of a Koya-San bus tour. My friend’s coworkers also commented on the perceived large percentage of foreigners that visit Koya-San.
The next day, after watching the morning ceremony and eating breakfast, we headed out to see the sights of Koya-San. To our dismay, we had to deal with another day of rain.
Just like the Shikoku Pilgrimage the year before, Koya-San was in the midst of celebrating its 1200 year anniversary. However, unlike the Shikoku trail, it did not appear that anyone was showcasing anything more for the occasion. While various temples among the 88 would allow visitors to view special statues and treasures for the special year, nothing at Koya-San seemed to be different, with the exceptions being the commemorative plaques. Perhaps I simply missed anything else special, but I really couldn’t tell the difference.
There were also many places at Koya-San that allowed no photography whatsoever, which I understood, but still grumbled about in my journalistic mindset. The Reihokan Museum being is a prime example of this, as the museum holds some of the most impressive Buddhist statues and articles I have ever seen. While donation boxes were placed in front of each of the deities, a sign that caught my eye was one in front of one of the more grand Miroku Bosatsu statues stating, “Please do not offer rice.” Overall, the museum was very impressive and I highly recommend the visit.
If there is any grand draw of Koya-San, it is most certainly the Okunoin mausoleum. With over 200,000 tombstones, the graveyard hosts tombs from Sengoku-Era household names, modern corporations, war memorials and commoners alike. We first visited the graveyard at night after dinner, and it was both equally striking and ominous. The next day’s rain and mist did provide an extra layer of intrigue, as it made the hundreds year old moss on the tombstones really pop.
Nearing the end of the graveyard, we reached the main hall where Kobo Daishi’s body is said to be. Shingon Buddhists believe that Kobo Daishi is not actually dead, instead in a deep state of meditation. In fact, meals are brought to him twice a day and his clothes are changed at scheduled events. There is actually a word for this, “Sokushinbutsu,” which relates to “Buddhist monks observing austerity to the point of death and mummification.” (Google if you are cool with seeing mummies)
Eternally lit lamps surrounding the main hall and continuing into the famous “Hall of Lanterns” was one of the more impactful visits of the trip. For 2,000,000 yen (roughly US$16,440), one can purchase a lantern and have it stay at the monastery or lantern hall, inscribed with the name of the recently deceased. At night, the lanterns created a row of a particular orange-yellow light that I was easily lost in. U. A. Casel said in KOBO DAISHI IN POPULAR LORE, “The Shingon sect makes good
use of art and ornaments…many Shingon sanctuaries look more like repositories of art and classic literature than religious centers of inspiration.” There was this odd sensation of appreciation and beauty in an area dedicated to death. I am sure there are others places like this in multiple parts of the world, but Okunoin is certainly a staple of that feeling in Japan.
As we left the main hall, I stopped by the charm stand to pick up a new item for my walking stick. Many people go to Koya-San either before or after completing the Shikoku pilgrimage, but I was a rare one in visiting while only having done half. I asked the woman stationed there which charms were for travelers, as the first charm given to me before going to Shikoku was of the same brand. After chatting a little bit and paying, she wished me the best of luck on my continuing journey.
On multiple times during the hike, and even on the way back home, I thought to myself as to why I wanted to go to Koya-San in the first place. In fact, what made me want to the Shikoku pilgrimage? Sure, they were all excellent vacations AND I talked about it two years ago (whoa!), but looking back to what I said back then, I realize those were presumptions. Honestly I probably would not have had any true knowledge of Koya-San without doing the Shikoku pilgrimage first.
While my friend and I relaxed in our room before dinner at Shojoshin-in, we discussed some of the differences between various Buddhism sects, which is a very large and obtuse topic. However, putting it in very, very simplified terms, what makes Shingon Buddhism stand out (along with other forms of Esoteric Buddhism) is the belief that one can achieve Enlightenment in this lifetime, as opposed to going through the cycles of other Buddhism beliefs. It is something one can accomplish right here and now in this body, but one has to put in the work.
Now, I don’t believe that if I see or offer something to a Buddhism deity that I am actually speaking to them, nor many of the other more mystical aspects that come along with Shingon and Esoteric Buddhism. But what stands out to me about Shingon more than anything else is that it emphasizes one’s actual experiences with the world will lead to that Enlightenment.
As mountains are not noble because they are high, but
because of the trees that grow on them, so, also, a man is not noble
because he is stout but because he is wise.. .”
My individual experiences with the multiple people I met in Shikoku, to the old ladies at the Minshuku, the hotel receptionist at Nosegawa Onsen, it’s those interactions that help make me a better person. This is seen even in Shikoku with the “Thank You Slips” given by pilgrims to people who offer food and services to them. It’s by going out, meeting others, giving and sharing generosity that makes things more worthwhile. Those experiences can’t be found in books, alone and silent.
All of this makes me want to get back out there and start walking once more. Can’t wait until I can do it again.