It's a world away from frenetic Tokyo and the dash for the bullet train – the Daishi religion, and its heartland high up on Mount Koya in Japan, where visitors can stay and live like Buddhist monks
My first prayer session took place on a Sunday morning. The temple was gently lit by flickering candles and as my eyes became accustomed, I began to see an abundance of black and gold boxes, along with offerings of pink, perfectly rounded grapefruit, flowers and red candles arranged carefully on a shimmering altar. A bright crimson carpet streaked its way across a bed of beige tatami matting, signalling the way for prayer goers.
Four monks with shaven heads, enveloped in bright tangerine robes, knelt before us in silent contemplation. The reverberation of a single drum beat heralded the start of the prayer session which progressed in the form of symphonic chanting in unison, accompanied by the occasional clash of cymbals. The repetitive chanting held us all in a suspended hypnotic state until each person in turn was asked to navigate the crimson carpet on their knees. Upon reaching the altar, they were encouraged to drop sweet-smelling incense into a burner while offering a private prayer.
I had come to Shojoshin-in Temple, in the heartland of the Daishi religion, high up on Mount Koya at the centre of the Kii Peninsula, to live alongside monks secluded from the outside world. Set among eerie black clusters of cedars at an altitude of 3,000ft, the imposing Mount Koya (sometimes referred to as Koya-san) is Japan’s most venerated Shingon-Buddhist site, attracting over one million pilgrims per year.
In 816, Saint Kukai – also known by his posthumous name, Kobo Daishi – founded a monastic retreat here. Daishi had left Japan in the year 804 and set sail for China to study the art of Tantric Buddhism, in which he was granted a master title. Returning to Japan two years later, he began to spread the Shingon ("true word") sect of Buddhism which culminated in the Emperor of Japan granting him the land to build the monastery. By the Edo period (1603-1867) there were almost a thousand temples on the mountain, but typhoons and fire left their mark and there are now only 123 remaining.
The best way to reach Mount Koya is to take the cable car from Gokurakubasi station which can be joined via the Nankai line from Osaka. The 15-minute silent ride through the dense forested hillside is truly magical, with the cedar trees lined up like sentries flanking the path to a secret world.
The mountain’s unique and somewhat mystically charged atmosphere is best experienced with an overnight stay. Mount Koya has 53 temple lodgings where you can stay and observe the monks as they go about their daily rituals. At the Shojoshin-in Temple, the monks are renowned for their preparation of shojn-ryori: a vegetarian gourmet food which is skilfully cooked without use of any meat, fish, onions or garlic. Delicious but delicate dishes included tempura, koya-tofu, miso soup, sweet-and-sour seaweed in vinegar and wild potatoes. Food is served by the monks in simple private dining rooms. Guests kneel on the floor and eat off low tables. The actual method of preparation is a well preserved secret and has been passed down through generations of monks. Shojn-ryori, for both breakfast and dinner, was one of the highlights of my stay.
In typical Japanese style, rooms within the temple are simple with screened doors, tatami mats and a small altar decorated with a flower or scroll. A thin yet comfortable mattress is folded away every morning and rolled out again on to the floor in the evening. Early nights are a must, as the monks prayer bell is rung every morning at 6am prompt, and guests are invited to visit the main hall of prayer at 6.30am.
No trip to Mount Koya is complete without a trip to Daishi’s mausoleum – the Okuno-in (inner sanctum). Situated in the eastern half of Koya, in a necropolis of more than 200,000 tombs, it is the most sacred spot on the mountain. Grand status is attached to burial on Mount Koya, and the stone path leading to Okuno-in is lined with monuments and tombs housing the remains of Japan’s most powerful and illustrious families.
Elderly pilgrims, mostly dressed in white, climb the lantern-lined path leading to the central sanctuary of the Daishi faith. Some tombs along the way are touchingly decorated with red and purple bibs and hats. Occasionally, jars of money are left along with little boxes of baby milk – intended for Jizo, the guardian of sick and miscarried children.
Directly in front of Daishi’s mausoleum is the Toro-do (Lantern Hall). Here, 11,000 lanterns burn day and night, including two that are said to have remained lit since the 11th century. This is where most of the pilgrims linger – including an elderly Japanese couple dressed in matching white capes, who, supported by walking sticks, stare ahead lost in thought. Their journey is complete. To me they are a remarkable sight, but here on Mount Koya, they are just two more pilgrims among the many million.
Shojoshin-in Temple (www.japaneseguesthouses.com/db/mount_koya/shojoshinin.htm). Guest rooms at the temple cost £80 per night, including breakfast and dinner.
Getting there Return flights from London to Tokyo with Virgin Atlantic cost approximately £550.
Getting around A Japan Rail Pass provides unlimited travel on bullet trains around Japan, and is he most convenient way to see the country. A one-week pass costs £125.
Japanese Tourist Board (www.jnto.go.jp)