An evening with the Monks


Welcome to Ekoin Temple, Mount Koyasan. Ekoin was built by Dosho, KoboDaishi’s disciple, almost 1200 years ago. “Eko” originally means “Transference of Merit.”
The monks of this temple practice Esoteric Buddhism-meaning “secret teachings”-we learned that these monks school of thinking allow them to find deeper meaning in the world around them. Secret, meaning that we can’t see it…it’s within nature, within the lotus flower, in the sky, in the animals, etc. The doctrines are taught one-to-one by masters. Their goal is to achieve enlightenment in this lifetime through hands on experiences.

Mount Koya (Koyasan) is the center of Shingon Buddhism, an important Buddhist sect which was introduced to Japan in 805 by Kobo Daishi (also known as Kukai), one of Japan’s most significant religious figures. A small, secluded temple town has developed around the sect’s headquarters that Kobo Daishi built on Koyasan’s wooded mountaintop. It is also the site of Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum and the start and end point of the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage.

Kobo Daishi began construction on the original Garan temple complex in 826 after wandering the country for years in search of a suitable place to center his religion. Since then over one hundred temples have sprung up along the streets of Koyasan. The most important among them are Kongobuji, the head temple of Shingon Buddhism, and Okunoin, the site of Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum (

Ok, end of the history lesson! If you are interested in learning more, you can research it 🙂 Will I become a buddhist now…? No, but did I learn something while on the mountain? Yes. DoI feel a bit closer to nature…? Yes. It was a very peaceful 18 hours. So, this is our experience.

It’s about 2 hours from Osaka, about south west. The drive was pleasant, curvy, green, and fairly simple…wait, simple? Not really. I drove through 2 mountains, endless tunnels, and got there by sundown. That’s the most important part! That mountain was a most interesting drive. We took a snapshot of our map, just so you can live it with me 🙂 Narrow roads, curvy turns, up, up and up.

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Our room was in this building above
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ust a glimpse at the curvy map we drove…mind you…this was going up on a mountain…not flat 🙂

We made it before sundown, and found a bustling town-including a small college. It was gorgeous! Not to mention, there were temples everywhere. And they were OLD. I looked to this adventure as a historian, not a religious quest. This mountain contains a history over 1200 years old.

We checked in smoothly, and were showed to our room. We payed extra for our private bathroom, but it was worth it. The plus…great shower/bath, private…the negative…we didn’t use the mountains natural hot springs. I should have, even with the private bath. Oh well.

Back to the room-it was a traditional tatami style, maybe 15 mats big? I should have counted! Fail! We had a tatami table and cushions to sit on. We had a monk that was assigned to our room, and here we sat as we went over our meal, ordering sake, and going over the optional schedule. Dinner would be arriving in about 30 minutes-so when he left, Paul sat on our little patio (it was so beautiful and peaceful) and I went exploring.

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This is our patio.
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They moved the table for dinner, and then to put down our futons. The symbol above, is the symbol for Ekoin, the temple we stayed in. Circle with a plus or x depending.
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And let the food begin. Paul being adventurous wearing a yukata and eating something. 
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Dinner came, traditional monk vegetarian cuisine, on little trays. Our monk presented the meal, and left. We sat on the floor attempting to distinguish what everything was. Smelling first, then tasting. I of course ate more than Paul did-but he did good. I was proud! The good news is that I knew there wouldn’t be weird animal bits. So that was a relief!

Soups, pickles, tofu, fruit, seaweed, and more things we couldn’t identify. After dinner, our monk came to collect our trays, and another showed up to put down our futons. Did you know there was a bit of a ceremony for putting the beds out? Me either. They were quite comfy, but we are glad we brought our pillows. The Japanese love their bean filled pillows…my head and neck do not.

After dinner we got ready for our guided cemetery tour. Yes, cemetery. You heard right. I was so excited when they asked if we wanted to join the tour, led by a monk, in English. Well, most of us were on the English tour, and about 10 were on the Japanese tour. Anyway, we are really close to the cemetery-so it was a short walk. The history he spoke of was amazing-from the statues, the symbolism-the ritual behind it all. We were told the history of the mountain, the monks, esoteric school of buddhism, famous people in the cemetery, and rituals.


As we toured, he spoke of the moons lighting our path. He explained that Kobo Daishi (a renaissance man for Japan), thought very highly of the moon. He likened our minds to that of the moon…every changing with each new experience. So, in this teaching, the lanterns that light the path of the cemetery have different moon phases lighting the way. He also explained the typical headstone symbolism. Each level representing something different: earth, fire, wind, water, space (beyond). There were thousands of these-some small, some gigantic. Like large oak tree size. He said more recently people choose to have just a square headstone as it’s cheaper. Also, each section is owned by a different temple. And by own, it’s their responsibility to maintain the grounds in that section, say the prayers in that section, and more. There is a new section of the cemetery for new burials-this section is owned by the main temple I believe. The other cool thing, is that anyone can be buried there. No matter your religion, or where you are from. They welcome everyone. That is one thing I sincerely love about the monks. All are welcome-all are welcome to learn and observe their teachings and way of life. I like that a lot.

As we continued along the path, he told some myths, some fables. He was very good-he also did a great job explaining the monks life-goals, duties, etc. When we neared the main buildings, the discussion took a different turn. He started explaining the Kobo Daishi’s temple and resting place is at the end of the cemetery-that he is there in eternal meditation. In fact, the first building we came to was the kitchens for the first temple of the mountain. And, each morning and each evening monks prepare meals, and carry them to his tomb. Interesting huh?

After this point we weren’t allowed to take pictures since it was considered holy to them. At this point we crossed toward another bridge, one covering a beautiful river. Our monk told how they learn patience, and bits of enlightenment as they try to recite their mantras, in their underwear, in the dead of winter…where the river is below zero. It used to be a requirement, a part of their training. But now, it’s up to each monk if they will do it. He said many still attempt it, but it’s very difficult and some have died from heart attacks because it’s so cold.

Technically, we should all have stepped in to cleanse ourselves before crossing the final bridge, but instead, we were allowed to splash water on one of the buddhist statues, and bow. Not knowing which buddhist I was bowing too, I stepped up to one that looked welcoming, feminine, and peaceful. As I did my part, the monk started chanting as he did his own. I was surprised, as this was the first I had heard a monk reciting anything. It was beautiful. Can’t describe it otherwise.

When he finished, I think we all were a bit more hushed, as it seemed our “history” tour was taking a slight turn. It wasn’t just a tour, but the beginning of our exposure into his world. I really enjoyed participating, not just watching. After this bit, we went to the other cleansing station-this time for our hands “body” (the other for our minds?). This is the typical set up we see at every temple, and we have never known what to do. We were taught a simple, yet traditional 5 step process that we each did before crossing the bridge. So, now you can learn.

1) Grab the scoop with your right hand. Fill with water, and pour it over your left hand.
1.5) Switch…fill with water and pour over your right hand.
2) Pour water into our left hand, and then fill your mouth with that water, swishing it around.
3) Spit it out into the pool
4) Use the scoop to pour clean water over the spot you spit on
5) Now, you have to cleanse the spot you held on the handle, so fill the scoop with water, and try to flick it down the handle, covering your wrist (and not drenching your entire arm while you are at it)

Replace the handle, and walk towards the bridge….I managed this successfully! Now, I know what to do when entering a temple. Very excited because you know, we are in Japan. There are temples and shrines EVERYWHERE…and one of the most popular things to see  and do 🙂

From this point, we went to the temple! It was huge, breathtaking, lit with thousands of hanging gold lanterns, each with meaning. We didn’t go it, but walked to the back where the Kobo Daishi is meditation. Here, he told us more information about their practice, why they utilise gold lotus flower, burn incense, and what they do when they visit. He then began chanting the heart sutra, which is the same I copied in my room!

During his chant, we were bowing and thinking of a wish over and over. Once he was finished, we walked back towards the kitchens-where the tour officially ended. Paul and I chatted with the monk for a bit on our way back to the temple-I wish I could remember his name. He was easy to talk to, very likeable. We did get a picture with him at the end of our stay.

Bad picture, but explaining how to do the water cleansing
One of the bridges. This one we couldn’t photo after crossing
The symbolic headstone-going up-square=earth, sphere=water, pointy=fire, small oval=wind, top=space/void
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The many lanters that illuminate the cemetery at night-with the moon phases

After the tour, we headed back to our room. Paul fell asleep and I copied the heart sutra using ink and brush onto a special paper. It took me about an hour, maybe longer. It was all in kanji, which is tricky anyway. But, it was calming too. Maybe that’s why I have gotten into a painting frenzy. It relaxes me! I slept after that. It was actually very comfortable and it was warm (due to the mega kerosine heater in our room).

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Beginning…………………………………..end-all copied by my hand using ink and brush

I woke up at 6:00 to attend their morning service. I went to the main temple, removed my shoes, and found a little seat on a wall to watch. There were 2 monks lighting some candles, turning on heaters, and switching out incense (that is always burning somewhere), and prepared for the service to begin. The head monk of the temple came in right at 6:30…looking like the typical buddha himself-and took his seat (with his back to us) at the main alter. We watched for about 40 minutes as they sang, chanted, hit gongs, used their beads (rosary), and did whatever else they do. At one point we were asked to join, where we went to the alter, bowed, took incense ash, put it to our forehead, and placed it in the bowl.

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Once the service ended, we were able to go onto the main alter area, where we bowed to the main buddhist statue, then left. I had no idea what was happening, and that’s ok. It was peaceful. I was rested, and peaceful afterwards. And stunk a bit like smoke. But that’s ok!

Next I met Paul at the gate for the fire ritual. We were ushered into a little space where an alter was prepared for fire. The fire symbolises the need to purify our minds-burn away our evilness inside. Both services, rituals, are done everyday as a part of the monks life. The monk came in to do the ritual, and another sat at a drum. What is it about fire and drum beats that are so enchanting? This ritual took maybe 20 minutes-and about 1/2 way through the fire began-and it was big. Surprisingly, not hot. Now that I think about it…it was very comfortable in that small room with a contained, yet raging fire.

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Literally, a front row seat.

When this service ended, we pretty much packed up and checked out.  It was going to start raining pretty bad and I didn’t want to get caught on the mountain, driving down in it.

Paul and I both didn’t know what to expect when we booked our stay via email. Paul was especially pleased and surprised by how much he enjoyed the experience. I too was very pleased-not knowing what to expect but being really eager to experience everything I could in that small amount of time. I didn’t make it in time for my mediation practice-but that’s ok.

Should you ever have the chance to stay with the monks, I highly recommend it. No matter your religion, your school of thought, you can learn something from their way of life. If for nothing else, it’s beautiful and enriching to see another’s culture-and furthermore, to experience it first hand. How many of us can say we have? How many of us can look past our own experiences and expectations-biases and judgements to learn from someone else? Even if it is a different religion than our own.

If you made it this far, I thank you for sharing my experience with me!


“Heart Sutra”
Link to listen to a chant. Beautiful!

website for temple:

Other pictures from the local area (other temples)-plus some pictures I took from the book they provided us. Read to your own desire!

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Cemetery Photos

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Borrowed cemetery photos-we went at night and left before going back during light-so thanks google!
These are the statues we threw water on by the river-1/2 of them actually
The lanterns at the temple.
Kobo Daishi’s final metitation tomb-golden lotus
*reason for golden find the beauty within, even when covered in mud/evil (lotus grows through mud, but is beautiful despite it)

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We were each given a gift- gorgeous chop sticks!
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