I came to Koyasan full of poison.
The train pulls up through the hills, mist is cloaking the mountains and the only settlements are a couple clumps of wooden houses along the way. We could’ve just taken the wrong turn into a scroll painting. The other tourists all have their noses pressed to the window, probably thinking “wow, Japan, wow.” I barely look. I’m letting my insides boil.
It’s been a rough number of weeks at school. While I’ve always had a difficult group of kids, the switch up of teachers in May led to a number of increasingly difficult situations with the 15 year old boys, who apparently decided at some point that I wasn’t worthy of their kindness or respect. During the two months of glares, jeers, or whispers they don’t think I’ve understood, it chipped away at me and my (always shaky) self-confidence to the point of feeling like a body made of glass bones and sandpaper skin.
And so here I am, up into Koyasan. As the final home and gravesite of Kobo Daishi, Japan’s most important spiritual figure, it’s often considered the holiest site in Japan. We were moving in. And all I could think about was those kids, how much this job sucked and how many of the promises given at the JET Conference (‘internationalism’ ‘making real connections’) had slowly dissipated over the year. And so, looking out at the hills and the dense tangle of bamboo made me think about the first time in August when I took the bus out of Tottori, when those bamboo groves appeared so new and rich and alive—so foreign. How excited I was. That memory only crystallized my bitterness, and I tried to ignore just how much things have changed since.
Of course Koyasan, like Kyoto or Tsumago or countless other spiritual sites in Japan, slowly got to me. In many ways it’s a new watermark for spectral Japanese place, sinking through in a subtler and more encompassing way than any others. But after a day I left there, like I’d left the rest, with school and those horrible boys waiting for me on the other side. So what am I supposed to take from it?
I stayed at the top of Koyasan for a grand total of twenty-four hours; it was probably only the final two where I realized it was probably the most peaceful 24 I’d ever had. Koyasan unfolded for me intricately, like the stitching of a quilt where, up against the wool, you won’t see the greater picture until it’s finished and you can finally take a step back.
There are no ah-ha moments here: no midnight Geisha or Shibuya crowds or even giant Buddhas. It’s a tiny quiet town with a high number of monk complexes and higher number of graves.
Strung along, these moments come in fragments: a meditation session with a young monk, telling us to breath in the mountains and hold our eyes in the half-state of opened and closed. This is such a strange position to hold that the whole twenty minute session I’m focusing more on keeping my eyes like that that actually focusing on not focusing, while my feet are cramping and my back’s groaning. It’s a relief when the session ends. It’s only later I remember that in the middle of that—resting in the eye of the cyclone of tiny annoyances—I felt a black circle in my middle, warm and glowing.
In the same way, we wake up at 5:45 the next morning and listen to the monks chant in the main temple, Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum: my feet are cramping, my head’s gaining that weight which warns of the incoming coffee migraine, and I can’t make out a word of the chanting—all ‘zai-zai-muna-huh’, sounding more Sanskrit than Japanese. And yet I leave the temple with a further feeling of wholeness… though, still, I won’t recognize it until later.
Or the way going through the graveyard at night doesn’t feel like a trespass, that with the lanterns leading us along, we’re actually being welcomed by the stone buddhas and fiberglass pagodas and moss-heavy toris. Why do they leave the graveyard lit all night like this? To let the dead out or to lead the living in? At the end of this path is the mausoleum, where rows of intricate golden lanterns cast a faint, unearthly glow on the red wood of the temple.
And I remember here that Kobo Daishi visited Joe and I already: in the cave where he found enlightenment, down on Shikoku’s southern tip, when we were so overcome by some presence we bowed to the rocks and the darkness. When that feeling returned here, I wasn’t remotely surprised, since I’d been following these lantern paths for those three months… ending here made perfect sense.
Meaning continued knitting itself, nothing out of line. The tiny white guesthouse serving amazing Indian curry. The rock garden in the temple. The faded mandala etching in the museum. The thick incense. The extraordinarily genki old Japanese man who really badly wanted to give me a tour of the graveyard, who kept insisting I come with him no matter how badly I really need to take this next bus, coming in 5 min see?
It all came to a pressure point when I had my arms over the railing of a temple. A group of Japanese pilgrim-tourbussers had pulled in and were being herded like geese. It rained softly, and there was mist above the trees. And I exclaimed,
“Nothing’s ever been this peaceful.”
I said it before I thought it. But the moment I let it out in the air, it reverberated with a truth and wholeness. And I was able to let go of the schoolkids and my broken expectations; let go of leaving Japan and the future-oh-God panic attacks. I breathed. The peace aligned with a wholeness: that for a rare hour or two, I don’t feel like there’s any piece of me that’s missing, that there was something inherently wrong with me. Not trespassing: I was exactly where it needed.
And it won’t last, couldn’t last: by the time I was on the bus back to Tottori the following night, I was already grinding my teeth again, practically bear-baiting the aggravation and darkness to jump back into the ring. So what was the point?
Nothing says retreat like the peak of a mountain does. It’s been a tenement of Japanese Buddhism for as long as there’s been Japanese Buddhism. In Tale of Genji, every time one of the central characters has a little ‘too much fun’ (drinking, partying, sleeping around, eventually getting caught by the wife/husband/grandmother and shaking up the social order), they decide that they’ve “had enough of the world,” and are essentially written off by becoming a monk or nun and cutting all ties, where they can be closer to God and understand the Way.
Removing yourself from the world. Normal rules certainly don’t apply in Koyasan; in the mist, in the solitude, there’s something ancient there which appears fresh and recent. Time doesn’t apply. But can pulling away from the world really bring you any closer to some kind of overarching truth, or does it just obscure things? Decontexutalize; drain the life out of it. It’s one of the reasons I always keep Buddhism at arm’s length, because what’s the point of trying to remove yourself?
But if the moments are all we can take, and the moments will always slip away eventually, what do we bring? If the nature of Koyasan being a retreat heightens that distance from the normal world, doesn’t that make it all the more fleeting?
Well I’m gonna try. These aren’t truths, they aren’t even rules; just some vague guidelines that, committed like this, help to sort out the different frequencies of noise in my head. These are the things I took from Koyasan that following day.
Follow the moment
Every hippy and self-help book will tell you to be in the moment, and I want to modify that a little. It’s a fallacy to say you can ever ‘be’ in a moment, since all of those moments are carrying so much of everything—association and fears and obligations—that if you’re actually able to cut all ties like that you’re probably, well, a bit of an asshole. Following a moment is a bit different, and it’s a feature I’ve grown increasingly sensitive of while travelling.
It’s being aware of something innate in the air, a taste to the wind or a certain feeling to a path. Saying yes to something that should be crazy but sounds about right at the time. The Before Sunrise effect: if you met him/her on the train, would you get off, even if it’s not your stop? You become particularly cognizant of this sense while wandering through Koyasan’s graveyard: you’re exploring a graveyard, after all, there’s always a rational part of you that’s saying this isn’t right, but at every path—and there’s so many paths, some recent or well cut, others vine-trodden or half-blocked by trees—you’re given the choice to leave, or to keep going in deeper. And you go in deeper. And somewhere in the heart there–that’s what you were looking for.
I became more sensitive to the path I take, became more aware of when I could go somewhere, and when I should. I didn’t go wrong. The next day, I hopped on a train to Horyu-ji on a whim because its train was coming up—only learning later that it’s the oldest temple in Japan and also, oh, the oldest wooden structure in the world.
Outside, the pagoda could be just a slightly smaller less well-kept version of any of Kyoto or Nara’s pagodas, something I was thinking right up to when I got a chance to peer inside, where the stone idols inside looked closer to Japan’s ancient pagan past than its Buddhist bedrock. The temple stands between the two eras (of course, only in Japan can you accidentally hit up two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the same day), and it’s a vital portion of Japan’s history I would’ve been missing without seeing it.
Following my nose again led me back to Nara after a seven month absence, got me lost a kilometer or two east of the temple complex where I’d been aiming for. I found an entire Edo-era district with intact cedar homes (some open for free viewing), silk stores, temples in the backstreets, and an entire street of traditional medicine stores. The first time I came to Nara, I was completely blown away by its central park and Todai-ji, but I found the town itself to have little more than freeways and Aeons. Turns out I’d just missed its old quarter, where real Nara still clicks along; I had to get lost before I’d be able to find it. Oh, and on my way back to the station? Ran into a whole Oktoberfest (yes, in Japan, in June), and an outdoor jazz concert giving excellent renditions of Ghibli films. It’s unbelievable how rewarding this country is at moments like these.
Koyasan is one of the few truly special places in Japan I’ve shared with someone else. We were on the train up together, and once we realized we were going to the same hostel, we started talking; by the end of the next night, sharing a couple strongs on the Dotonburi Osaka canal, it felt like we’d known each other for years. What might’ve happened a couple months ago—when I had the tendency to ‘dive first, ask later’—is that we would’ve chatted, joked a bit, and I would have found a way to go off and do Koyasan on my own.
I thought these things could only be experienced solo, that by having someone there, I’d be so focused on making them happy and by extension making me look good I’d barely notice the temple itself. But that’s not really connecting: that’s fuelling my own ego, by being so intently focused on making me look good I close off everything else.
And yet here was this travel journalist from the UK who’d been to every concert ever, with very strong views on both Brexit and British rap, and who knew exactly what I was thinking most of the time, who often felt it too. Walking through the graveyard at night, standing under the lanterns, looking into the tapestry room where a fading dragon eats the sky. We didn’t have to say anything to know we were thinking the same thing. And I learned that when you share something spectral and fleeting, it validates it, and in many way extends the power of that moment because it’s now mutual.
And I learned just how much I’d been cutting everyone off. When the students attack me like that, my only defence is to burrow into myself so completely and with such a strike-line of bitterness that I don’t even realize I’m doing it when they’re not around. But after her, the others I met in the hostel, and my aforementioned star tour guide, I let go. And the bitterness and fear dissipated.
That next day, I was hungover, hangry, and had no idea how the day would turn out. And I was trying to pull myself through Umeda, the craziest most disorienting station in Osaka. But as I was running through, I saw a 3 year old girl giggling fiercely while being swung by her parents, two college friends holding shoulders, and an old lady dressed in her finest jewelry like she was going to a ball at 10 am—those and the hundreds of others, life filling through and flushing out. I couldn’t ignore it anymore.
And that day in Nara was so much made by the way everyone else was interacting and being amazed by the place—the kids crowding around the deer (“DON’T DO IT KIDS, RUN, DON’T YOU KNOW THEY’RE SATAN INCARNATE?”), the old ladies pressing their fingers up against the glass protecting the old scrolls, and everyone’s awkward dance-clapping while the (very strange) Oktoberfest band rocked on and rocked out.
And even though I was alone it really didn’t feel that way. It’s amazing, really, how when we’re travelling we can feel connected to people we’ve never and will never meet, and then can go to work the next day and sit at your desk all day feeling completely soul-dryingly alone with the people you see and nod to every day these past eleven months. Trying to bring the former more in touch with the latter is still something I haven’t managed to master.
Because as banal and half-formed these truths I could take from Koyasan are, when I follow them I feel whole, feel like I’m exactly who and where I need to be in that moment. And even though that moment will shuffle off and may be immediately contradicted by the one following, if it’s full and alive and I’m alive with it, then it wasn’t a wasted one.
And now, how do I link that to the rest of the time? 90% of these blogs end up talking about only 15% of the time I actually spend here. So I need to find a way to still make the other 85% count for something—open to people, following the moment, even in the middle of a textbook reciting class when one half the students are glaring at you and the other half are asleep? I haven’t quite managed that one yet.
But I’ve gotta try, don’t I? I have to keep listening to what Koyasan—what Kobo Daishi—is trying to tell me here. Because what else can I take from my time in Japan?