In the winter of 2016, I wanted to take a few weeks to travel abroad, push my limits, and experience something I’d never experienced before. I wanted to take a break from consulting, pack up my things, and distance myself as much from the technology, startups, and the Bay Area, as much as I could. While browsing around, I came across a forum that mentioned a surreal experience in central Japan, where residents could stay at a buddhist monastery overnight, observe morning rituals, and visit the famous Okunoin Cemetery. I was hooked! The next day, I booked my tickets to Japan, and after spending a few days in Tokyo and Kyoto, I was headed to Mt. Koya.
Getting to Mt. Koya was a challenge in itself. After taking two different trains from Kyoto to Osaka, and Osaka to the base of Mt. Koya, I reached the Koyasan Cable Car. The car takes you up the mountain at a 45 degree incline and takes about five minutes and costs about 390 yen. From the top station, it is a quick ten minute bus ride into the town center. I’d finally made it to Mt. Koya.
I knew I would have a short time in Mt. Koya, spending just a night in the small town, so I headed straight to the famous Okunoin Cemetery. Okunoin is a dramatic Buddhist cemetery located in the Koyasan mountains of Japan. The area has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, designated as one of the Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range. Koyasan was the birthplace of Shingon Buddhism in Japan over 1,200 years ago and is widely regarded as one of the most sacred places in the country.
Shingon Buddhism beliefs are pretty fascinating. There are no dead in the Okunoin Cemetery, only waiting spirits. It’s founder, Kobo Daishi, is believed to rest there in eternal meditation as he awaits the Buddha of the Future. When Kobo Dashi rises up to meet the Buddha of the Future, so too will those resting within the cemetery.
After the cemetery, I checked into Daein-In, the monastery that I would be staying in for the night. My host, one of the buddhist monks at the temple, welcomed me with open arms, and showed me to my room. The room itself was larger than many of the hostels or hotels I’ve stayed in up until that point. The floor was covered in bamboo mats. There was a small bed on one side of the room, and a small table with tea on the other.
Shortly after checking in, it was time for dinner. The same monk escorted me from my room to the dining room where I would be having my meal. Once seated, he brought a small tray and placed it in front of me. I would be horribly mistaken if I even tried to guess what was on my tray, but being vegetarian themselves eased my concerns. Regardless, the meal was phenomenal.
After I’d finished dinner, I went to bed. I woke up the following morning at 6am to observe the morning prayers before heading out on the first bus to Osaka. Even though my trip to Mt. Koya was short, it was, by far, one of the best moments during my trip to Japan.
While I had the opportunity to experience the hustle and bustle in Tokyo, Mt. Koya offered me an escape from my busy mind, even if just for a moment.