The red cabin departs from Gokurakubashi and slowly progresses uphill through the surrounding forest. It is still loaded with locals, new visitors and their luggage, but despite the weight and the steep slope, it finishes the route within five minutes.
The cable car is just one more evidence of how times have changed and how, in recent decades, the once detached Mount Koya has given itself to the outside world.
At first, Japanese visitors were admitted, at a certain point, not necessarily just pilgrims who arrived from days of walking.
Then, in 2004, when UNESCO inscribed the places and pilgrimage routes surrounding the Kii Mountains on the world heritage list, the “mountain's” growing fame made its worn-out seclusion definitely unsustainable.
As Shoto Habukawa the Ajari (lead priest) of the Muryoko ji temple summed up: “In this era, Mt. Koya will cease to be Mt. Koya if we don't embrace outsiders…”.
The Exterior Opening of the Formerly Elusive Mount Koya
Once the change of principles was assumed and communicated, Japan's national organization for the promotion of Japan began to publicize the destination abroad as well, a task that would soon prove to be rewarding.
The Western sympathy for Buddhism, the enormous interest in all things Japanese, and the beauty of the images that have begun to circulate of the temple complex and the surrounding landscape have created an aura of fascination that continues to thicken over Mount Koya, an island of tranquility and spirituality that observes and analyzes the busy and consuming Japan of the metropolises.
In good Japanese fashion, some religious leaders redoubled their efforts to fulfill their vows. Thus the phenomenon spread throughout the village's monasteries shukubo, the form of reception and integration of official visitors to Mount Koya.
Kurt Kubli: the Unlikely Buddhist Monk and Swiss PR
And so was named Village Public Relations Kurt Genso, actually named Kurt Kubli, 58, the character who would turn our visit into an even more unforgettable experience.
For about 1200 years, everything was different. The idea of the monk Kukai – known as Kôbo Daishi after his death – behind the foundation of a center for the study and practice of his interpretation of Vairocana Buddhism, was to find a refuge that would ensure retreat and protection from outside interference.
The importance of this isolation has remained crucial over the centuries. It was so respected that, until the end of the Meiji era (1871), women were not simply admitted to the village, but an exclusive temple, built at the entrance, the Nyonindô, was reserved for them.
The Buddhist Revolution of a Monk Named Kukai
In clear disregard for a directive Japanese imperial that it should remain under study in the China then ruled by the Tang dynasty for 20 years, Kukai returned at the end of the second. He returned enriched by the wisdom of Master Huiguo – the patriarch of the Vairocana current – but was forbidden by the Japanese rulers to enter the capital.
His new teachings were, however, something to talk about. Pardon was granted after a few more years, as was permission to develop the Japanese doctrine and culture that continued to follow the novelties across the strait.
As soon as he obtained permission from Emperor Saga in 819, Kukai gathered a large number of followers and workers. It began the gradual construction of Mount Koya, in a lost valley 880 meters high, between the eight mountain peaks that the inhabitants of the Wakayama region called Mount Koya.
And that the monks considered the eight petals of a lotus to be a very strong symbolism of Buddhism for the real nature of things that ascend to the beauty and clarity of the Enlightenment.
Back at Muryoko ji, the surprise is not Japanese, not Chinese, not even truly Asian.
The Religious Reception at Muryoko Ji Monastery-Inn
“Hello, welcome to Koya San” says the monk Genso with a welcoming smile. In the distance, the shaved hair deceives us for some time. But the approach reveals the exquisite Germanophile traits of Kurt Kubli, the host's baptismal name.
A Swiss who cut with a past more Florentine than Helvetic as a banker, businessman, artist, student of yoga, Flemish and Indian philosophy to join the spiritual flow of Mount Koya. There, in addition to the required devotion, Kurt is responsible for consolidating the recent internationalization of the place and the peculiar religiosity that it develops.
The Guided Tour through the Heart of Mount Koya
Our visit is part of your duties. As night is falling, the monk begins by suggesting that we settle down as quickly as possible and then walk among the temples in the twilight.
Night sets in and the Japanese winter cold is pressing down on the valley. Kurt walks indifferently in the twilight, through the Danjô Garan, the local group of temples, pagodas, halls, statues and other monuments that he knows in detail.
At the start, the aim was just to lead us to the visitor's center, but instead of going straight ahead, it takes a detour so that we can begin to feel the magic of Mount Koya.
Smothered by the cedars that surround the village, the silence is only broken by the distant croaking of crows and by the enthusiastic and multilingual dissertation of the monk who, among generic instructions related to the stay, passes on the names and Buddhist reason for being of each building.
The cold intensifies as it gets dark and invites us to gather. At that time, there is a frenzy, in Muryoko ji, which forces Kurt to go out of his way to answer a group of Australian photography students we joined.
Back to Muryoko Ji's Welcoming Domain
The students aussies wait seated on the floor of tatami from one of the thirty rooms, where dinner was served to them. kurt pushes the doors fusuma of paper, he enters without ceremony, introduces himself and asks if anyone wants a beer. Amazement seizes the presents.
“Don't make that face. It is not a problem for the temple that they drink beer. We don't even call it beer here, we prefer to treat it as a herb of wisdom…” Rejecting the suggestion, he starts to lecture on Mount Koya, Buddhism and, forcing the topic, another of his favorite subjects: himself.
He tells of episodes and personal information from the past: that he was reborn in Zurich but that he feels a lack of ties with his country of origin, not least because he lived for twenty years in Florence. “I retain no particular affection for my homeland. I don't even like cheese, which is something you grow with in Switzerland.
I have lived in many other places and in my heart I am a citizen of the world.” By this time, the questions that were put to him revealed experiences as a banker, businessman, contemporary artist, student of yoga and flamenco, economics and Indian philosophy, to mention just a small part.
The conversation goes on for over an hour. Before the end, we're told that dinner awaits us in our room and we're going to investigate.
The Kaiseki Gastronomy of Muryoko ji
Unlike what happened with other monasteries, at Muryoko ji, the meals shojin-ryori – like its timetables and those of the ceremonies, the common traditional baths and the fact that shoes coming from the street are replaced by specific slippers for different areas – are some of the indigenous elements preserved to better integrate visitors into the Buddhist atmosphere.
Many even imagine the food sparse and tasteless. The completely different reality is served, every day, at eight in the morning and at six in the afternoon.
The vegetarian meals of Mount Koya, Goma-dôfu and Koya-dôfu have been perfected and preserved since their founding times thanks to the long dedication of the monks. They are based on the precepts of Sobo cuisine, long related to Buddhist mental training and which incorporates the sense of the seasons by combining five methods, five flavors and five colors.
The one who had just served us was Buddhist and at the same time kaiseki (Japanese traditional). We found on a low table two trays filled with different china and plastic plates, bowls, and other containers. It is seen from above that the sets, arranged to the millimeter, best reveal their traditional refinement and beauty.
There is a miso soup and appetizing doses with different medicinal concerns tofus, accompanied by pickles, tempura, sweet beans, mushrooms, vegetables grown around the monastery, seaweed and sesame. Unless otherwise instructed by the guest, green tea is served to drink.
The infusion complements the delicious and invigorating repast that the monk Kurt is proud to have reformulated, annihilating the instant noodles and MSG (Monosodium Glutamate) previously served to guests.
When we praise the apprentice-monk Fusumi – who lived for two years in São Paulo and comes to collect the trays – he dares to clarify in Brazilianized but shy Portuguese: “It had to be like this 'right? Most of the year, it's very cold here.”
Early riser and enigmatic prayer of Homa
The next morning, we adhered to the monastic discipline and, despite the cold, we rose early to attend the Homa (Goma in Japanese) of Fire ritual, a ceremonial invocation of the deity Acala exclusive to the esoteric Buddhism whose function is a psychological and spiritual purification.
Its flames are expected to destroy negative energies, oppose harmful thoughts and desires, and fulfill prayers and prayers.
It takes place in a semi-hidden room, gilded with religious paraphernalia and scented with incense. And driven by a ajari (master) who reads the prayers in the privacy of an old book.
For ninety minutes, he is accompanied by several acaryas (Instructor monks) who, kneeling, alternately recite and chant the sutra, generating mystical choirs that, in the ocher light of the room, suggest a kind of collective trance.
Despite this sensory experience, in contrast to the norms of exoteric Buddhism according to which doctrines are taught through scriptures, the shingon branch follows the Mikkyo (esoteric) principle of personal and spiritual transmission of knowledge and experience.
And while in exoteric Buddhism readings are taken simultaneously by large groups of monks, on Mt. Koya and the rest of the Shingon universe, there is a teacher for each practitioner and their personalities are taken into account when teaching methods of liberating desires and worldly concerns.
Kurt ends up playing a little bit of both roles and, in the time that's left, continues to show us Mount Koya.
The Guided Discovery of Kompon Daito and Okuno Cemetery in
As we walk through the shady cedar forest, he explains to us the Buddhist past and reason for being in the main buildings of Danjô Garan, the village's religious stronghold. We start with Kompon Daito, an imposing and exuberant pagoda, the center of a mandala that, according to Shingon belief, encompasses the entire Japan.
We also walk around ancient temples made of worn wood that, despite being deactivated, still preserve a certain historical elegance. And we visit Kongobuji, the secular and emblematic seat of the chain.
“The Okunoin Cemetery! I know where we're going now!" A cold fog begins to fall. And Kurt remembers his favorite Mount Koya spot for when the weather gets that way. On the way, he overtakes us, at a slow run, by an army of shingon monks packed for another Buddhist practice.
At our pace, we entered the narrow cemetery alley and for almost two hours, we were given over to Kurt's newly acquired wisdom, the countless stupas, jizos (small statues), graves and tombs, largely subsumed in a verdant carpet of lichens and moss.
O okunoin it is the largest cemetery in Japan. It is also the holiest site on Mt. Koya as it houses the Kobo Daishi mausoleum that believers believe has been in eternal meditation since March 21, 835.
Small platoons of hurried pilgrims travel through it, arriving from the arduous trails of the Kii range, and eager for the transcendent proximity of the supreme master.
Kurt chants the sutra for singing on the special occasion there and expects us to repeat it several times before we pass the test.
Then, we start our way back, through the bordering but no less interesting areas of the vast cemetery. And among the common graves, and those of shoguns and samurai, we found others, corporate like those of Komatsu and Nissan.
Some companies erected funeral monuments peculiar to their founders and employees and honor them with symbols of the activity or production to which they dedicated themselves.
The huge coffee cup installed by the UCC company and the simplified sculpture of the Apollo 11 rocket set up as a tribute by Shinmaywa Industries (which had nothing to do with its launch) stand out.
In the fashion of Shingon Buddhism, in tune with each person's creativity, at Koya San, Nirvana is the ultimate goal.