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Monks on fire

Spooky graveyards, mediation and spongy tofu

Yesterday we left Hiroshima so early in the morning that it made our eyes water and headed for the hills. After a lengthy travel via bullet train, regular train, funicular railway, bus and foot we arrived at our home for the night. A monastery high in the hills by Osaka in a little village called Koyasan. After leaving our bags in our tatami (straw mat) floored rooms we set out to visit a cemetery. It is one of the most sacred places in Japan as it contains some of the remains of the man who brought Buddhism to Japan from China. It was a beautiful place to be with lots of shrines both very old and very new. The old ones were elegant and moss covered some having been around for close to two millennia. The new ones were just as amazing although for slightly different reasons. As it was one of the most famous graveyards in Japan it costs a lot of money to have your ashes interred here and so only the rich can afford it. Therefore many of the shrines of remembrance lent more towards the ostentatious than the respectful. There was even a grave for a family’s dog; some people have too much money.


We rushed back to the monastery to make it back in time for an evening meditation session. One of the monks spoke excellent English and talked us through their style of meditating. We sat cross-legged on the floor and breathed in and out through the nose, counting each breath from one to ten and then repeating. The session was half an hour and whilst we were good at it, there were some around us that coughed and fidgeted.

Stretching out our aching limbs we made back to our rooms to change into our robes for dinner then headed to our dining room. It had been set out beautifully and had some tables on the floor at which we had to sit cross-legged. The meal itself was a monk’s typical meal but not one that we particularly enjoyed. They don’t eat meat so there was a lot tofu which neither of us are particular fans of. We did manage to get most of it down though, only taking exception to the spongy one that leaked with water every time you prodded it.


After the early start most of the tour group were tired and headed straight to bed but we thought we’d try out the hot baths. Much the same routine as the ones in Hakone (Naked in the hot springs) here however there was only one bath. We’d planned to meet up again after a couple of hours but the water was so hot we were both out in about fifteen minutes! After chatting to our friend Steve for a bit we headed to our room for a comfy night on the Japanese futons.


Our monk activities were not quite over yet though as we had a few ceremonies to attend this morning. With an early rise of 6.20am we headed to the main temple and watched two monks chanting for over half an hour. How they kept it up we’ll never know but it was non-stop and incredibly beautiful to listen to. We then moved on to the second ceremony; the Fire ceremony! As one monk chanted and banged a drum, another went through a long ritual to make a fire. He had to throw certain powders on it and liquids and he burnt sticks of wood that people had written prayers on. Although he seemed somewhat clumsy and kept dropping things, the ceremony was fantastic to watch and the fire was absolutely mesmerising. Now we’re all monked out it’s time for us to head on to Osaka, the last place on our tour!

Rex’s Rules of the Road

  • It gets very cold up at Koyasan, make sure you have lots of layers. Our monastery kindly gave us heaters so going to bed was quite toasty.
  • The accommodation this tour provides is fantastic and a great change to hostels. If you can get on one in Japan with a stay in a monastery it’s well worth it. See Rach's review of the monastery here.

Posted by rexontheroad 09:40 Archived in Japan

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