Whilst seeking solitude and at the same time exploring Japan’s cultural authenticity, I ended up staying overnight in one of the Buddhist temples at mountain Kōya. Dramatic surroundings were hinting a phantasmagoric experience, however, soon I was brought back to a bitter reality: the village has slowly been changing due to visitors’ influx
THE BAD APPLE AT THE TEMPLE
It’s a crispy cold morning and I am sleeping in a Buddhist temple at the top of the holiest mountain in Japan. My phone, which seems so out of place in this scarcely furnished room, sets off at 5a.m, and now, regretfully, I open my eyes. I start hating myself for staying up late last night, but I did it because I gave into the urge to take a natural hot spring (onsen) session entirely on my own. Just a little tip: tattoos and onsens are a big no go, so if you have any, you might be asked out. There’s a, let’s call it, recognition in Japan that only anti-social kind and members of illegal organisations would get inked. So I, the yakuza, am not ashamed to admit that I’ve been staking-out for at least an hour before taking a dip in an empty outdoor bath at a bedtime hour.
Anyways, now I roll out of the sheets onto tatami mat, Japanese-style woven-straw floors, and slowly but steadily start getting ready for the morning prayer ceremony. But first, let’s get out the elephant in the room and let me tell you what brought me to the temple in the first place.
THE LOST IN TRANSLATION SITUATIONS
My younger self-had an amazing opportunity to do a 3-month internship in Japan with a lot of flexibility to travel at the same time. Once I finished the programme I decided to explore the country as much as I can. And when I travel, I try to learn more about the really authentic aspects of culture in a subject. From hanging out with local people and learning about regionally spread cuisine, traditions, religions (or lack of) to losing myself within the public transport systems, staying in small villages and gesticulating my way out of the lost in translation situations. This search of authenticity took me to Mount Kōya where I stayed a night with monks at the Buddhist temple, Fukuchiin, on my own. And together with other guests…
GLUED TO THE WINDOW THROUGH THE HASSLE
I started the trip from Osaka, my love. I’ve purchased the Koyasan World Heritage Ticket and took the private Nankai line from Osaka’s Namba station towards Gokurakubashi. The train ride, especially at Koya-san’s base, left me glued to the window. With the train weaving in and out of the encompassing forest, you could see flashes of tiny rustic villages, forests and mountain streams below. At Gokurakubashi station, I transferred to the cable car which took all of the passengers on a steep, 5-minute thrill ride. Finally, from Mount Koya’s top station it was a ten-minute bus ride.
When I stepped outside the bus, immediately, I was hit by a mountainous breeze. I could only see the grey sky at the end of an empty street and when I started walking towards the temple, neighbourhood’s loudspeakers started playing folk music. It was already 5pm, and in Japan. Here they play music through speakers every day to test emergency broadcast system. Unofficially it’s called goji no chaimu, or 5pm Chime.
FROM SPARTAN & RUSTIC TO “MODERN CHIC”
One of the highlights of visiting Mount Koya is staying at a temple lodging, shukubo. And, of course, here you shouldn’t expect to find conveniences of a modern hotel. Silly me, I thought that natural and authentic are precisely the bait that lures people in.
My Japanese-style room had futon bedding and a minimalistic set of furniture. And it could totally pass as spartan and rustic temple lodging, if not another oddball besides me and the phone. That’s the TV, of course.
Even though fuming over a tiny a device with a screen for receiving television signals, doesn’t make much sense, but I guess for me it was more like the tip of the iceberg.
The TV was there, reminding me that my assumed needs are catered after. It was my totem, so everytime I looked at it, I knew beyond a doubt that in reality, I am a tourist. And, like a lot of people, I try to escape feeling like one, when I’m abroad.
So this TV was grounding me to reality and not allowing me to fully immerse in the story-telling, in designing the architecture of my own real-time experience.
It was signalling the traces of altered infrastructure, compared to the past. Even though It’s also plausible that monks watch TV nowadays, I just couldn’t shake the fact that the temple village has now become altered to be more tourist-friendly.
I hoped to get a symbiotic experience, but it felt more like a nonorganic purchase. I mean, would you pay someone to hang out with you? Monks livelihood depends on visitors and I happily aided in financial support towards the maintenance of the temple village. However, a rough price tag on pretty much everything as well as seeing a few locals that didn’t seem too positive about the cultural exchange calmed down the philanthropic wishfulness.
FROM MONASTERY TO A TOURIST HOTSPOT
Mount Koya is a remote, sacred mountain at almost 1km above sea level and temple village located in the wooded mountains of the Wakayama Prefecture. In Japan, they call it Koya-san! Here are the headquarters of the Shingon school of Buddhism (or Orthodox Esoteric Buddhism) and a home to over 100 temples and monasteries. As you can imagine, it’s an intensely spiritual and tranquil place which was originally established by the famous monk Kukai (or Kobo Daishi) in the 9th century.
Koyasan was originally a peaceful and spiritual monastery, but today it has evolved into a significant place for both local and international travellers. The number of visitors has been growing so rapidly that the demand and supply dynamic has been evidently affecting how the village operates.
In fact, Nankai Railway released figures on foreign visitors in 2016, which has jumped to 70,000 from 131 back in the 1970s. Which makes it around 534 times more visitors compared to 1970s! And both the foreign influx, as well as the incline of local visitors, have already left a huge impact: souvenir shops, vending machines, TVs in temples and Wifi hotspots keep popping up.
There are so many catalysts that impact the shift from authentic and so it seems that it’s quite impossible for places like Mount Koya to stay unaffected. Unless there’s a time capsule that someone knows off?
THE ELEPHANT HAS LEFT THE ROOM
And now back to me getting ready. I leave my room and follow a small group of foreigners, all looking drowsy and heading towards the same direction, to join the morning praying ceremony. One of the monks offered this perk quite nonchalantly upon arrival. We enter a small room crowded with monks, incense, and candles. All co-existing in a perfect and holly harmony.
I can’t help it, but I feel like a big European eel on the shore, sticking out like a sore thumb. Actually, I feel like all of us, the observers, are just a school of fish in the desert of this small room. Gasping for air amongst the confusion. Suffocating by the intense mantra, the language and the religious practices we knew little off. Somehow It’s still overwhelmingly beautiful and intimate.
When chanting intensified, I closed my eyes and the sound, sometimes so quiet and at times punchy, left me in trance. My existence finally diffused with their sacredness and in the end, I blended in.
At the end of the ceremony, monks turned around and opened doors to the zen garden that was directly behind our backs: we were greeted by the rising sun. Everyone was quiet for a moment there: slowly taking in the view and truly living in the moment. And after this, I went to my room, packed and started my journey to discover Mount Koya.
SOUVENIRS TO TAKE HOME
Koya-san, in fact, is a perfect place for those who seek solitude, peace and at the same time would like to know more about Japan’s history, religion and spend time with monks. I think overall, the experience was quite intimate and unique, yet somewhat wrapped up in a gift bag.
I couldn’t help but feel strange buying a fragment of an authentic culture. One thing is clear – times change, people change, and it only makes sense that various locations will be affected by those changing factors.
Of course, this is applicable to many other beautiful and unique places in the world. Is the change good or bad? Depends on the person’s perspective.
I think it’s safe to say that authenticity is not static. It’s dynamic and evolving, (whether into something good or bad) so I think it’s the time to adjust my definitions of authentic and accept that time capsules just don’t exist. Yet.