Journey to Koya-san in the snow

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On this hot and sunny summer day in Kyoto, it is easy to think back about a couple of days spent walking and photographing last January, in a snow covered village of temples on Koyasan (Mt. Koya). The village was founded in the early 800’s and is home to about 100 temples. Surrounded by six mountains, the quiet town is dedicated to chanting and prayer.

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I stayed at one of the many temple lodges and ate meticulously prepared and presented multi-course vegan shojin ryori cuisine, served on carefully combined lacquer ware, stoneware and fine porcelain dishes. I attended the hour long 6:00am service where seven monks chanted sacred sutras to the beat of a wooden drum, a large bronze bell and brass cymbals.

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Kukai (Kobo Daishi) was the founder of the monastery at Koyasan as well as the founder of Japan’s esoteric Buddhist sect, Shingon. A great calligrapher, civil engineer, inventor, mystic and linguist, Kukai traveled to Chang-an, the great capital of Tang Dynasty China, around the year 800 AD. He is credited with being the first person to combine two great tantric Buddhist traditions into one cohesive system. Shortly after he returned to Japan, he founded the monastery on Koyasan, which continues today as a center of Buddhist practice. Kukai predates Tibetan Tantric Buddhist founder Marpa, by about 200 years.

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A highlight of my visit was a stroll under giant ancient snow covered cedars, passing the family graves of some of Japan’s most historical figures—shogun, daimyo feudal lords, samurai, writers, poets, artists and captains of industry, on a 2 km. route leading to the temple at Okunoin, the resting place of Kukai lit by hundreds of lamps shining soft amber lights. Slowly burning in the quiet temple hall was the subtly sweet fragrance of pure sandalwood incense.

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There is a legend at Koyasan that Kukai actually never died, but sits to this day in profound meditation, in a special chamber, deep within Okunoin.

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