Gods and Beasts
I have my haunts, the places I frequent when I want to travel just a little out of my city. Kyoto and Kobe’s city centers, and the mountains that are within walking distance in both cities, provide me with peace of mind when I want my urbania tinged with the odor of incense and soil. Occasionally, I want to travel a little further afield without having to reserve a train seat or book a room. I’ve been to Mt. Hiei before, the mountain in the northeast of Kyoto that served as the headquarters for the massively influential Tendai branch of Buddhism. I had never before visited Hiei’s counterpart, Mt. Koya.
Koya was the great headquarters of Shingon Buddhism, counterpart to Tendai. Both are considered “Esoteric Buddhism”, with a complex array of gods, incarnations, and rituals, an arcane mysticism that appealed to the inner circle of the ancient imperial court. Both arrived in Japan from India via China at the turn of the ninth century, and the founders of both Japanese sects were friends who turned into rivals over matters of religion. While the Tendai at Hiei turned into fearsome power players with a hold on Kyoto, Koya built a reputation as a place of die-hard mystical mountain men.
In an age when walking distance from the emperor measured your power, Hiei was right up against the capital. Hell, this was an age when people might walk for days to reach their destination, and even I could make Hiei from the old palace in under two hours. Koya, though, was isolated. Kukai, the founder, wandered through the wilderness searching for the right place to found the first temple, until two mountain gods in the guise of white and black dogs lead him to Koya. To this day, it lies in a rugged, sparsely populated, and largely undevelopable mountain region of Wakayama Prefecture to the south of Osaka Prefecture, more than an hour south of Osaka city. This worked to Koya’s advantage- it didn’t become as entangled in plots and rivalries as Hiei, and thus was spared the destruction brought on the former, and other temples like it with a military arm, when the warlords of the 16th century conquered the country.
So a holy mountain, counterpart to Hiei, but a mite more of a journey. I had to go. I took a train a good hour south from Osaka, passing the mountain ridge that separates it from Wakayama Prefecture, crossing the broad Ki River Valley flowing towards Wakayama City, and entering into a rugged land of short but steep mountains, dense forests, cold mists, blue waters, and little villages packed into rocky valleys.
Hiei is almost impossible to miss in Kyoto, a stern black pyramid of a mountain that juts out of the land around it. Koya, on the other hand, blends into a landscape of like mountains, tall but not very prominent in its surroundings. It was hard to tell whether I was really on Mt. Koya or not, until I was already at the top.
Out of nowhere, I found myself on a road twisting around a ridge. I turned a hairpin corner to find this:
Not what I expected at all. See, Koya isn’t just a temple, it’s an entire town of about three thousand, tucked into a bowl-like depression on the top of the mountain. It’s got schools, banks, supermarkets, and even a couple bars and liquor stores for the non-monastically inclined. Hiei in its golden age was like a city unto itself, but lost that status after Oda Nobunaga destroyed it in the 16th century. Koya, I guess, has retained its status as an independent community long after temples stopped being a political force in Japan.
Koya is not a single temple so much as a notion spread throughout a town, but there is a core to it.
This is the gate to Kongobuji, one of the largest and most significant temples in Koya, established not in the original founding in the 9th century, but at the end of the old imperial order in the 12th century.
Kongobuji contains a large complex of gardens
…including apparently the largest, or one of the largest, rock gardens
The inmost sanctum, though, is next door- a relatively simple and unassuming, but dark enclosure.
I could imagine this landscape exactly as Kukai had- besides the road, nothing around me to suggest the warmth of humanity, a land reserved, even a thousand years later, for gods and beasts. A land where there is nothing for you unless you can take or build it for yourself, as the founders did.