Mount Koya: Beware of Bears


By Pete Martin:

I stop at Karukayado (the Hall of Karukaya). The Karukaya is a story of a boy called Ishidomaru who came to Koya-san in order to meet his father. The boy met a monk, who was in fact his father, but, as the monk had renounced his past life for priesthood, he told the boy that his father had died and sent him back to his mother at one of the inns at the edge of the mountain. (At this time, women were not allowed to enter Koya-san and so seven temples were built on the periphery for women). Ishidomaru found his mother dead at the inn and so returned to study under the monk, never knowing the monk was his father. The hall is now preserved as a hermitage where father and son practiced asceticism together for over forty years. I walk along the corridor of the hall that houses the shrine and follow the paintings on the wall that depict the story.

In the centre of Koya-san is the Kongobuji and Danjo Garan complex. The Kongobuji is the head temple of Koya-san Shingon Buddhism. The temple comprises two temples that were combined together in 1869. It has a feel of history and tradition in its plain, ancient wooden features. It was in the willow room of the Kongobuji that Toyotomi Hidetsugu, the nephew and retainer of the great Toyotomi Hideyoshi, committed seppuku (ritual suicide by disembowelment) after being accused of plotting a coup.

The complex opens up further with the old, dark wooden Fudodo on the left sitting prettily in front of a lake. This is the oldest existent building in Koya-san built in 1197. Opposite is the magnificent towering red Daito (Great Pagoda). Kobo Daishi planned the Daito as the centre of the monastery. The original construction began in 816 and was completed seventy years later. The forty-nine metre high red pagoda that is here now had to be rebuilt in 1937. Inside there is a golden statue of Buddha Mahavairocana.

This area is spectacular. The ground is covered with snow or, where it has melted, with wet orangey-brown gravel. Beyond the Daito are more sacred buildings, including the Meido (Portrait Hall), where it is said that Kobo Daishi had residence. This building is closed to the public and is only opened once a year, on the anniversary of the day Kobo Daishi began his long (and continuing) meditation. Inside is a portrait of Kobo Daishi painted by his disciple Shinnyo.

At Rengendani, it’s a short walk uphill to my shukubo - a temple that provides lodging. The outside of the shukubo looks like an old, traditional temple, with a rock garden and carp pond. Inside, I change into geta and am shown to my room by a monk in full robes. Inside, it’s completely modern except that there is no heating. Later, I change into my kimono and warm outer coat and I’m collected from my room by the monk for dinner. My private dining room is a small room along a cold, glass panelled corridor. The shoji on one side have simple tree paintings on them. The others are bare. The glass doors are closed and in the middle of the floor are a cushion and two red trays with cold food laid out. Beyond the glass doors, I have a view of the rock garden, now lightly lit in the dark of the evening and sprinkled with what remains of the snow. Another tray is brought in with hot food, sake and tea. I take my time to sample it all. It’s one of the best meals I have ever eaten and in one of the most amazing locations. It takes me nearly an hour to finish everything.

Just before seven o'clock in the morning, I’m lead to the older part of the temple, through the cold corridors, to the shrine room. At the back there are cushioned benches on either side of the central aisle. I sit down. Two small side rooms have hundreds of red lanterns on the ground. In the middle of the room, there’s a model of a golden pavilion in front of the altar. From the ceiling, more lanterns and pendants hang. The only light comes from several rows of lit candles. One monk sits directly in front of the altar and one monk to the side. The one to the side begins a slow chant and soon the monk at the altar begins a louder chant.

Both use various bells, chimes and cymbals to wake the Buddhas. Halfway through the chanting, one of the monks comes to me and asks me to drop three grains of rice into a bowl. The monk then returns and they chant in unison again. Without intending to, I find myself falling into a trance. I’ve been given a sheet of paper with the words to the ‘Heart Sutra for the Perfection of Wisdom’ which is written in Japanese and English. The Japanese is also spelt out phonetically in English. Amazingly, I can pick up the sounds and I’m able to chant quietly along with the two monks as they recite the sutra. Time seems to stand still.

After forty minutes or so, the morning ceremony is finished and I’m taken directly to breakfast. The rock garden looks very different in the early morning daylight. Once breakfast is done, sadly I have to leave the inn. At the stop for the bus back to Koya-san station, there’s a sign on the wall which reads: ‘Beware of Bears! Recently bears were seen at each area in Koya-san and there are so many eyewitness reports. When you go out, don't go out alone.’ I now realise why I have had the wonderful sights of Koya-san to myself.

Pete Martin’s book Revolutions: Wandering and wondering on a sabbatical year is a compelling tale of travel and change and is out now. More information can be found at

Mono no aware: Two Japanese Gardens


By Kenny Fries:

We are extremely happy to publish this excerpt from the new book In the Province of Gods by Kenny Fries, which will be launched on the 17th September at the Schwules Museum in Berlin.

To noted translator Sam Hamill, mono no aware is “a resonance found in nature. . . . a natural poignancy in the beauty of temporal things. . . . Aware originally meant simply emotion initiated by the engagement of the senses.”  Ivan Morris, in his study of The Tale of Genji, says aware refers to “the emotional quality inherent in objects, people, nature, and . . . a person’s internal response to emotional aspects of the external world.”  Donald Richie writes, “The awareness is highly self-conscious, and what moves me is, in part, the awareness of being moved, and the mundane quality of the things doing the moving.”

My guidebook’s photo of Kyoto’s famous garden at Ryōan-ji shows some small pebbles in three divided sections.  This confuses me.  Could this be a garden?  It looks more like a close-up of carefully arranged spices in a kitchen cupboard.

Lafcadio Hearn, in “In a Japanese Garden,” writes:  

Now, a Japanese garden is not a flower garden; neither is it made for cultivating plants.  In nine cases out of ten there is nothing in it resembling a flower bed.  Some gardens may contain scarcely a sprig of green; some have nothing green at all, and consist entirely of rocks and pebbles and sand. . . . In order to comprehend the beauty of a Japanese garden it is necessary to understand —or at least to learn to understand—the beauty of stones.  Not of stones quarried by the hand of man, but of stones shaped by nature only.  Until you can feel, and keenly feel, that stones have character, that stones have tones and values, the whole artistic meaning of a Japanese garden cannot be revealed to you.

The rock garden at Ryōan-ji is small, only thirty feet deep and seventy-eight feet wide.  It consists of fifteen rocks, each of different size, color and texture, placed in five groupings, surrounded by a sea of finely raked grayish-white sand.  Viewed from the veranda of the monk’s quarters, the garden is surrounded on its other three sides by a clay wall.  The wall might have once been pale white, but now is light rust and contains chance patterns; over many years the wall has been stained by oil.

From no one point can all fifteen rocks be seen.  No matter where one sits, only fourteen rocks, at most, can be seen at one time.  I notice a group of students counting the rocks.  My eyes move from the students back to the rocks, first alighting on one group, then another, and then I become fixated on the Tàpies-like pattern on the oil-stained wall.

Looking at the garden, what seems like foreground becomes background; background becomes foreground.  The wall is most prominent; then one of the rock groupings, or a single rock; then focus is on the raked sand.  I realize why the guidebook photo is a close-up of a tiny corner edge of the garden:  it is impossible to see all at once; the experience of Ryōan-ji is cumulative.  

How long have I been here sitting here, looking? 

How can something so still—so permanent—be, at the same, just as evanescent? 

Although many have interpreted the meaning of the garden—a representation of islands in an ocean, some famous mountains from ancient Chinese texts, a tiger chasing its cub, a symbol for the Buddhist principle of unknowing—I have not ventured to interpret the garden beyond the experience of my viewing.

I get up and walk around to the other side of the monks’ quarters.  I bend down to get a closer look at the tsukubai, the stone water basin, on which there are four chiseled Japanese characters.  The sign says that reading clockwise, including the hole in the middle of the water-filled basin, the characters mean, “I learn only to be contented.”


The tour of Shugakuin Rikyu, on the other side of Kyoto, is in Japanese.  I am the only gaijin, a foreigner, on the tour, the only person who does not understand nor speak Japanese.

Shugakuin Rikyu covers a large area; there are three levels, each with its own gardenand a distinctly different design.  The two lower gardens are small and enclosed:  ponds, a stream, waterfalls, stones, lanterns designed around spare wood imperial-style villas. 

At the entrance to the upper garden, a path to the right rises through a hedge-covered stone stairway. 

Daijoubu desu ka?  Daijoubu?”—“Are you okay?  Is it okay?”—my fellow tourists keep asking me as we climb the stone path.

 “Daijoubu, daijoubu, I’m okay, I’m okay” I assure them.

With the obstruction of the hedge, there is no view of the garden before ascent.   However, once Rinuntei, the teahouse at the top of the stairs, is reached, the garden below—the clear pond reflecting all the garden’s pines and maple trees, another teahouse, the two bridges leading across islands to the pond’s other shore—can be seen.  All of this is framed by the surrounding mountains, including the sacred Mount Hiei, not belonging to the garden but part of it, from which it is said the garden’s pond, which also reflects the mountains as well as its streams and waterfalls, is fed.            

This is my first experience of shakkei, the principle of “borrowed scenery”:  the surrounding landscape becomes part of the garden.  This does not mean placing the garden so it has beautiful scenery nearby but actually incorporating shapes and textures of the surrounding landscape, and repeating those elements, as part of the garden itself.  It is, Donald Richie writes, as if “the hand of the Japanese reaches out and enhances (appropriates) all that is most distant.  Anything out there can become nature.  The world is one, a seamless whole, for those who can see it.”

At Shugakuin Rikyu, the hedge that at first seemed just a hedge is still a hedge.  But the placement of the hedge, its purpose, unknown at first encounter, is only revealed at the right moment, heightening the experience of revelation.  The view of the entire garden is delayed for maximum impact, delayed until it can be seen as “a seamless whole.”



About the book and author:

This is an excerpt adapted from In the Province of the Gods, which received the Creative Capital literature grant, and will be published in September by University of Wisconsin Press.  In the Gardens of Japan, a poem sequence, was recently published by Garden Oak Press.  Kenny Fries’s other books include The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory and Body, Remember:  A Memoir.  He is a two-time Fulbright Scholar (Japan and Germany), was a Creative Arts Fellow of the Japan/US Friendship Commission and National Endowment for the Arts, and is a faculty member of the MFA in Creative Writing Program at Goddard College. 

Mystical Mount Koya

IMAGE: Pete Martin

IMAGE: Pete Martin

By Pete Martin

Koya-san, which is 857 metres above sea level, is the base for the Shingon Buddhists, an esoteric sect of Buddhists. There are over one hundred and twenty temples on the mountain and there’s been a religious community here since 816. A monk named Kukai, who had studied Buddhism in China, founded the Shingon sect on his return to Japan. Legend has it that he threw his vajra (ritual sceptre) from China and it landed here in the mountains in Wakayama. The Imperial Court subsequently granted that Kukai was to build a place of meditation on the mountain. After his death, Kukai became known as Kobo Daishi. The monks to this day still believe Kobo Daishi to be alive, meditating in his tomb for the arrival of Miroku (the Buddha of the future) and they prepare three meals a day for him in Okunoin cemetery.  

I get off the bus at Okuninguchi for the Okunoin Cemetery. The cemetery is a sacred area and the pathway runs for two kilometres from here to Kobo Daishi's mausoleum. The path is lined with old, tall cedar trees and the cemetery contains over two hundred thousand gravestones and memorial pagodas. The trees are huge and close together blocking the sunlight. The graves are also packed together tightly, the dark grey stone, wood and black-grey marble give an eerie atmosphere. The ground is covered with snow and the base of the trees and the headstones are covered in moss. It’s not a place for anyone who is claustrophobic. The air is fresh, but the whole place is damp and slightly misty, adding to the enchantment. 

There are various signs in English and Japanese describing the legends that abound in the cemetery. This just adds to the ambiance. At the Sugatami-no-Ido (reflection well), legend has it that if a person looks into the well and does not see his reflection then he will die within three years. At the Ksitigsrbha Shrine, the bodhisattva Jizo is the Asekaki Jizo (sweating Jizo). The Buddha is made of black stone and is often moist due to the weather conditions. It is said that the statue is sweating because it bears the sufferings of others for their wrongdoings. At the Zenni Jochi memorial, a visitor can place his ear on the stone and hear the cries in hell. Near the end of the pathway, at the Mizumuke Jizo, the faithful pour water on the statues of the Buddhist deities for the peacefulness of their loved ones. Close to this is the Miroku-ishi, which is a stone that it is said to feel light to virtuous people and heavy to sinful people. I can't tell whether this is true or not, as it’s too heavy for me to lift. 

Along the path there are many gorinto (five-tiered stupas). The five tiers represent the five elements, from bottom to top, of earth, water, fire, wind and space, and these elements form the Buddha Mahavairocana, the fundamental deity of Shingo Buddhism, or the life force that is the origin of everything and that illuminates all. The goal of Shingon is the realization that each one of us is identical to Mahavairocana in nature, a goal achieved through initiation, meditation and esoteric ritual practices. 

Many of the statues have bibs, which provide the only colour in the cemetery. The bibs are placed on the statues by those who have lost children, in prayer to Ojizo-Sama, who is the guardian of children. It is said that the souls of children who die before their parents are unable to cross the mythical Sanzu River, as the children have not been able to undertake enough good deeds. Ojizo-Sama saves these souls from the eternal penance of piling stones on the river bank by hiding the children’s souls in his robes and this is symbolized by the bibs on the statues. 

At the end of the long pathway through the cemetery, there are three wooden temples in front of the stone bridge that leads to Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum. A group of four monks, again in orange robes and geta, walk noisily from temple to temple, stopping to pray and chant at each one. The stone bridge depicts the entrance to the precinct of the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi. The bridge was originally wooden but it’s now rebuilt in stone. It has thirty six stone planks that, with the bridge itself, mark the thirty seven Buddhist deities of the diamond world mandala, which is the representation of the unchanging cosmic principle of the Buddha. 

To the right of the mausoleum, up the steps from the bridge, is the Torodo, the lantern hall. This is a plain wooden building, a modern reconstruction of the prayer chapel of 1023, erected by the disciple Shinzen. In 1016, a poor woman sold her hair to buy a lantern to pray for the rest of her deceased parents. The Emperors, Shirakawa and Showa, donated lanterns also, in 1033 and 1948 respectively. These three lanterns are kept burning continuously in the hall. 

Inside the mausoleum itself, monks sit at stalls at the front copying sutras carefully. The wooden building is dark and atmospheric. Lanterns and pendants hang from the low ceiling. Two monks flank another who sits in the middle of the temple chanting. Incense burns and the only colour is from the orange robes of the monks. I feel I’m encroaching on a sacred service, but another monk waves me forward for a closer view. It feels very spiritual with the chanting and the incense. It even smells other-worldly. I’m apprehensive about intruding further. On my way out, to my embarrassment, I noisily slip on the wet entrance floor. Nobody notices. Outside I catch my breath. The tomb is usually closed. I was only inside for a matter of perhaps five minutes but it felt like time stood still inside. The gobyo (tomb) has an aura that I have felt only in a few other places.

Pete Martin’s book Revolutions: Wandering and wondering on a sabbatical year is a compelling tale of travel and change and is out now. More information can be found at