Koyasan and Kumano Kodo

Thursday 13 October

After the luxury of a hotel with bath and breakfast buffet, off to Koyasan by train, cable car and bus, to the gate where a young woman built a rest house for those who, forbidden to enter the monastery, walked their own pilgrimage path around it, up and down the mountains.

On the train, I read the blessing with which Rob Ryan had sent me on my way, and part of the pilgrim booklet Tetsuo gave us last night about the historical and religious background to the route.

The path was steep up the mountainside, with log steps and tree roots. We stopped at a Shinto gateway and temple at the top, and Tetsuo showed us how to approach a Shinto shrine: two bows, two handclaps, a silent prayer and a final bow. At Buddhist shrines, a simple bow suffices.

Someone expressed surprise that I as a Christian priest was comfortable to perform the ritual. I said that my prayer was to be drawn closer to the one true God by showing respect to the religious traditions of others.

After further ups and downs, we reached the Daimon Gateway to the complex where we stopped to eat the lunch we had bought at the station in Namba.

Tori (gateway) in Koyasan

 

Walk Japan pilgrims on the path

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the other side of the gateway, the monastery town began; but we remained outside to follow the women’s pilgrimage path up and down hill.

 

Our goal was the mausoleum, with over 200 000 memorials and many images of Buddha. Some of the memorials were new, erected in memory of earthquake victims or by a commercial company, e g Nissan, while others were centuries old.

 

The older part of the monastery was in a grove of tall cedars and led to a bridge, before which was a row of Buddhas onto which people were throwing water. Beyond the bridge was the memorial to Kukai, founder of the monastery, who shut himself up in a cave to meditate, just ringing a bell once a day – until one day, the bell was heard no more. There is a tradition that Kukai comes to welcome pilgrims as they enter the cemetery.

It was chilly in the cemetery.  I prayed with the black, “death” bead on the prayer bracelet.  Then, by the entrance, I saw a memorial to student soldiers who died in war, with a request in English to pray for their souls and for the peace of the world. So I did.

The pilgrim hostel welcomed us with a traditional (though not natural) hot bath, a collection of Kukai’s poems, and, unexpectedly, free wifi. Then an evening meal with many delicious flavours, the highlight of which was a student monk carrying out a stack of 10 meal trays one on top of the other.  Not easy to eat with chopsticks.  I was back in the bedroom by 7, to catch up on the blog.

Friday

Up at 6 for morning prayers at 6:30 followed by a fire ceremony at 7. The latter was reminiscent of the tea ceremony in Kyoto, with lots of brass bowls, sticks of wood, and other apparatus. A few prayers, written on strips of wood, were presented and burnt on the fire. Afterwards the monk blessed us.

Breakfast was similar to supper with rice, vegetables, soup and tea. Afterwards we visited the HQ of Shinto Buddhism which was much more interesting than I expected, with beautiful paintings on the folding doors, including some remarkable ones of cranes at different seasons, and a series from the life of Kukai. Photography and sketching of the doors was forbidden. However, we were allowed to take photos of a monk who gave us a short talk about how his cat helped him to appreciate life. I asked what pilgrimage means for Buddhists. It depends on the monk: for some, to visit place Kukai had visited; for others, personal insight or development. To another question, he said that it is important that each monk has  his own understanding.

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After that, we walked up to the orange pagoda we had seen from afar yesterday. There is a whole collection of historical pagodas and other objects, including a cherry tree planted by a 12th century poet-monk Saigyo.

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We proceeded by bus to the start of the Kumano Kodo path. Finally, this is the path I have travelled half the way round the world to walk. Yesterday’s “women’s pilgrimage path” was a bonus; Kumano Kodo is the real thing.

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The total ascent today was about the same as yesterday, in a much shorter distance, but it seemed easier, even with a surprise optional hill just before the village where we were to stay the night.

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A western-style hotel, and I had an en suite room with balcony all to myself. Another delicious but very complicated meal, accompanied with a glass of plum wine.

Saturday

So comfortable I was in no hurry to get out of bed. Breakfast at 7:30, seven different dishes: soup, tea, coffee, rice, pasta, mackerel, egg-and-veg.

A typical breakfast on the Kumamo Kodo
A typical breakfast on the Kumamo Kodo

Started walking at 8:30; it was good to make an early start and have a full day.

Kyoko joined us as a second leader for the next 4 days. She is an artist, and owns part of the forest.

Lovely woodland paths, and an ice cream at the lunch stop. At a welcome blast of wind, I sang the relevant verse of “All creatures of our God and king”.  The bus picked us up at 3:30 and took us to a hotel with hot spring baths. I rushed to get my laundry in the one washing machine and ended up sharing a load with the two young men in our group.

Sunday

Visited the first of the three major shrines on the Kumano Kodo route, Hongu Taisha.

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The shrine was moved to its present location after a flood swept away 8 of the 12 gods. The original location is now a green field by the river, very peaceful.

Tetsuo and Ondine bought pilgrim t shirts. I want one too!

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The final stage, back to the hotel, was much steeper than we expected, and I trailed behind the others. Kyoko gave me help and encouragement. It

Monday

Heavy rain overnight, but it cleared at 10 just as we left the hotel. Climbed up to a view point looking out on the Endless Mountains.

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There was a long descent, which would not have been not difficult in dry weather. The rocks were slippery so Tetsuo wrapped hemp rope around our boots.

Our hotel was an old school building near the river, very nicely converted, and the usual banquet spread for dinner.

Tuesday

The most difficult walk, mainly because of the need to get to the shrine at Nacho Taicha before it closed. So breakfast at 6, set off at 7, and the path kept on going up and up from 60 metres to over 800. After that, the profile looked flat but consisted of a number of steep downs and ups, with a short rest when we followed a tarmac road. Then, from a highest point, a very long downhill to the Nachi Park, after which a further 1 km down to the Shinto shrine and Buddhist temple overlooking the waterfall.

A taxi took us to the coast, where we caught a boat for a short time rid to our island hotel, which Tetsuo calls the James Bond hotel. It seems to cover the entire island, with three linked buildings and outdoor hot spring baths.

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Wednesday

A lot of train travel today: a half-hour ride to Shinju for the third of the pilgrimage shrines, and two hours + to Ise, with its two shrines at the headquarters of Shintoism in Japan.  Both places claimed 2000 years of history!

Shinju is a big village with lots of small houses and shops, flooded by a typhoon five years ago.  The station had wall paintings by Kyoko who was our second leader for the Kumamo Kodo part of the walk. Both the other shrines were out in the country.  On the other hand, it was less commercialised and simpler.  A monk gav us an explanation of the deities worshipped there: a Father God and a Mother God and the mother god’s brother – an Uncle God?

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After stopping for volcano-shaped “shaved ice” creams

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we proceeded to the final challenge: climbing 540 steps to a large rock high is also worshipped by Shinto as a deity. The first steps were steep and I crawled up. Coming down, there was an alternative mud track, short sections of which I came down on the seat of my shorts (deliberately, and with Tetsuo’s approval).

Ise has more of the feel of a big town or even a city.  There are two shrines and today we saw the outer one, the Geku, where monks prepared food for the gods.  The shrine is rebuilt every 20 years, and exhibitions at the museum showed us the craftsmanship required.  One picture of the shrine being moved, covered in white cloth, reminded me of pitching the tents for the bazaar at St Andrew’s Gothenburg.  One monk to each pillar.  This picture shows the site of the previous shrine, which will be used for the next one in 2031.

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Thursday

Up at 7 to visit the inner shrine, the Naiku, walking from our modern hotel through lanes of small houses. This decorated manhole cover seems appropriate to us on our pilgrimage:

 

The Naiku is situated in forest by the river. The innermost part of the shrine is only for the priests. Then there’s a courtyard area for those who make a suitable donation, and the rest of us stay outside, forbidden to take photos.  The most colourful sight was the fish pond, with enormous koi swimming around.

 

Then back to the hotel for breakfast, and to the station to catch trains, mostly to Tokyo but David and Emma to Nara and Ondine and Kathy to Kyoto.  I was the only one of us in the first carriage of the fast train from Nagoya so did not have a chance for a final goodbye.  But we shall be in touch sharing photos etc.

Footnote

I checked the conditions for obtaining a two-pilgrimages certificate.  We probably walked 38 km from Takijiri-join to Hongu, so, had I known, I could have applied there. We certainly walked 30 km from Hongu to Nachi, another way of qualifying. Indeed, it is sufficient to walk 7 km from Husshinmon-Oji, wherever that is, to Hongu and just visit the other two shrines. BUT certificates can only be issued by personal application at Hongu or at the tourist office at Tanabe, on the other side of the peninsula from our finishing point. No postal applications accepted.  So I do not get one.  (There is a fourth way, more in the Santiago tradition: 70 km from Koyasan to Hongu. That would have been satisfying.)