Roy M. Kodani
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
If ever there was a time to visit Köyasan, this year is it, for 2015 marks the 1,200th anniversary of the founding of the Shingon sect of Buddhism in Japan by the spiritual leader Köbö Daishi. Thousands of people — followers of Köbö Daishi and curious travelers, alike — have been making the pilgrimage to the mountaintop temple town in Wakayama Prefecture in Honshu for what is being hailed as an “unforgettable spiritual experience.” Shingon, the esoteric form of Buddhism, is similar to Tibetan Buddhism.
This year is extra special because Shingon’s grand memorial service was held earlier this year on Köyasan. The service is only held for 50 days
every 50 years, so opportunities to witness it are indeed rare and, for most people, a once in a lifetime opportunity. The service is rich in history and ritual with ancient religious protocol, sacred pageantry and holy ceremonies.
This year, formal ceremonies were held in the magnificent main temple known as Kongobuji daily from April 2 to May 21. Ceremonies were also held in the 117 surrounding temples and monasteries — all to commemorate the introduction of Shingon Buddhism by Köbö Daishi. Kongobuji was built in 1593 by Hideyoshi Toyotomi following the death of his mother. Hideyoshi was one of the three famous samurai leaders who brought peace to Japan during its warring years.
This past April, the Most Rev. Taiken Akiyama of Hawai‘i’s Haleiwa Shingon Mission led a group of temple members to Köyasan, where he was given the rare honor of officiating at a special ceremony to celebrate the founding of Shingon Buddhism. The Most Rev. Akiyama called for the peaceful repose of Köbö Daishi and prayed for world peace.
The ceremony began with a slow-moving, yet reverential procession from an adjoining temple led by about 20 monks and priests, all dressed in magnificent robes of gold brocade and walking in feudal-type shoes. In recognition of the honor that had been bestowed upon Most Rev. Akiyama, a large red umbrella was held high above his body to protect him from the sun, the intermittent rain and the evils of mankind.
Once inside Kongobuji, the ancient chanting of sutras with roots in India and China commenced. Köbö Daishi studied in India and China for several years with a renowned Shingon master-teacher. As statues of fierce-looking Bodhisattvas stared down from their pedestals, solo and choir chanting in deep guttural voices rose to the high wooden rafters of the temple and ancient brass cymbals awakened the souls of the worshipers. It was an impressive sight. Adding to the spiritual holiness and splendor of the temple were golden pillars with red and bright yellow tapestry draped everywhere; carvings of Phoenixes; the scent of fine, cleansing incense and tall, lit candles.
Although it was hard to understand the meaning of the sutras, the clear voices of the monks and the priests, male and female, and the chanting by Rev. Akiyama spoke to the sincerity and the earnestness of their hope that the emotional restlessness and distress of people everywhere will find peace and serenity. Throughout the approximately 90-minute ceremony, the cymbals clashed and clanged to awaken the souls of the worshipers and to emphasize the need for a pure heart in a world filled with strife, inhumanity and destruction.
Köyasan is located in the high mountain range of Kii in Wakayama, about an hour’s ride by chartered bus from Ösaka. Ordinarily, a traveler would take the train from Ösaka Station in Namba to Hashimoto Station in Wakayama and then transfer to Gokuraku-bashi Station, where a cable car takes them to the top of Köyasan, some 3,000 feet up the mountain in about five minutes. At the top of Köyasan, there are buses to transport visitors to several of the famous temples.
Many who embark on the Pilgrimage to the 88 Sacred Places of Shikoku begin their walk on Köyasan. These days, most pilgrims take the cable car to Köyasan and then begin the walk; some diehards, however, insist on taking the 13-mile walking trail to the home of Shingon.
Köyasan is laid out like a lotus flower surrounded by eight petals. Köbö Daishi, who was born into an aristocratic family on the northeast coast of Shikoku in 774, is said to have wanted a monastery that was far away from worldly distractions — a place where monks could pray for peace and for the welfare of the people.
The main gate of Köyasan is known as Daimon. It is lined on both sides with statues of protector deities. A narrow main road runs through the town, with towering 300-year-old cedar trees everywhere.
Among the many sights to see on Köyasan are Banryutei, the largest rock garden in Japan, and the famous vermilion-colored pagoda called Konpon Daito (Grand Pagoda). Most of the temples, large and small, have tranquil gardens on their grounds, many with running brooks and placid ponds.
There are no hotels on Köyasan, so many of the worldwide visitors making the journey for the 1,200th anniversary adopt a monk’s lifestyle for
a few days, lodging at one or more of the 52 temples that offer Japanese-style accommodations in the so-called “monk’s dormitory.” These shokubo (temple lodgings) have tatami (straw mat floors), futon (comforter) and shared baths. For more information on the monk’s dormitory, check out the Köyasan Shukubo Association at www.shokubo.net.
Shöjin ryöri (Buddhist vegetarian meals) are offered, as are vegan meals based on the concept of five flavors, five cooking methods and five colors. There are a few restaurants and stores selling religious artifacts, adornments, trinkets and food items.
The ancient cemetery called Okunoin is located in a sacred area whose path is lined on both sides with hundreds of towering cedar trees. The souls of over 200,000 historical figures rest in this cemetery, including the memorial mausoleum of Köbö Daishi, who was previously known as Kükai. Köbö Daishi died in 835 at the age of 62. His mausoleum is situated behind Okunoin.
There are also memorial pagodas with connections to feudal samurai clans and aristocrats in Okunoin. While the cemetery is rich in history and tradition, there are some things about it that are rather unconventional, such as headstones that are sponsored by major Japanese companies. Interestingly, the tallest and largest of the headstones was established by a Korean company.
Another famous historical place at Köyasan is the Danjo Garan temple complex and the statue of Yakushinyorai, which attracts many visitors because it is known as the Healing Buddha. This is the first time in many years that the statue is open for public viewing.
The Köyasan Reihokan Museum is another interesting place to visit on Köyasan. Visitors can see the three treasures relating to Kükai, as well as the standing statues of hachidai doji, known as the eight great youths.
Köyasan is definitely one of Japan’s treasures. In 2004, it was designated a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site. One would be fortunate to visit Köyasan at any time, but a visit this auspicious year would make it doubly special.
Roy M. Kodani is a Honolulu attorney who practices international law, which takes him to Japan, China, Korea and Mongolia. He born and raised in Hilo. Last year, he published a collection of stories in a book titled “The Sound of Hilo Rain.”