Accidentally Meditating with Monks
Updated: Aug 29, 2019
Koya-san, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Wakayama Prefecture, Japan, is a mountain topped with 117 temples, some of which tourists can spend the night in and experience a day in the life of Buddhist monks. From the first time I read about it, I knew we had to go.
Booking a temple room in this remote village turned out to be a little difficult, but not impossible. Check out Booking a Temple Stay atop Koya-san to see how I managed this feat.
We spent the days prior to this leg of the trip in Kyoto and budgeted almost about half a day for the travel. Our Japan Rail Passes covered the first legs of the trip, from Kyoto Station to Osaka Station to Shin-Imamiya Station. From there, we bought the Koyasan World Heritage Ticket, which took us to Gokurakubashi and included the cable car up to Koyasan Station and unlimited bus rides at the top of the mountain. Both passes were more convenient and more cost effective than buying individual tickets. We strongly recommend them both. Also, Japan Guide helped us manage the three trains, cable car, and bus it took to get to the top.
After about three hours of travel, with beautiful scenery the entire way, we reached the cable car at the bottom of Koyasan. It was mid-afternoon and since the temples request that guests arrive before 5pm so that they can enjoy dinner, we were not the only tourists on our way up the mountain.
The cable car took us slowly up the incredibly steep mountainside with a terrifying view out of the back, or actually the bottom, windows and to the bus stop at Koyasan Station. We were then sorted onto a couple different buses by the friendly staff depending on our accommodations.
Thankfully after all of this travel, our temple was at one of the first stops. We stayed at Rengejo-in, which was much larger than this picture shows. Just through the gate, we were greeted by a peaceful rock garden as we waited to be checked in.
While checking in, the staff was very helpful and spoke sufficient English. We were given a schedule of meal, bath, and (optional) ceremony times and shown to our room. When booking, we chose a room with a garden view and were not disappointed.
The room had beautifully painted fusuma (sliding doors) and a view of gardens in the back. It also opened up to gardens across the hall in the front to complete the feeling of being surrounded by tranquility and nature.
It was also surprisingly large, with a sort of entry way leading to the hallway (shown above). The bathroom was separate, with toilets and sinks at one end of the hall and the traditional Japanese baths at the other end.
After checking in, we still had some time before dinner and decided to venture out to Okunoin Cemetery, the largest in all of Japan, on the other side of Koyasan as the sun was setting.
We walked along the path, through several-hundred-year old cedar trees and more than 200,000 tombs dating back just as far and farther than the trees. Just over a mile, the tree and tomb lined path leads to the Mausoleum of Kobo Daishi, who is said to be in eternal meditation ever since his death more than 1000 years ago.
As twilight fell, we cut our cemetery walk short and hopped on the bus to make it back to our temple in time for the evening ceremony before dinner. I should mention that it was my idea to attend, and therefore I take full responsibility for what happened next. We were only aware that it was an evening ceremony conducted by the Buddhist monks and nothing more, but were curious and wanted the full experience of our temple stay, so we took off our shoes and took a seat on small cushions on the floor.
In the beautifully decorated and dimly lit ceremony room the monk, in English with a thick accent, started by telling us about the benefits of meditation and some methods for practicing it well. It was interesting and we were intently listening in order to understand him, so we heard him clearly we he informed us that we would meditate for 40 minutes. However, it took a moment to register. WE would meditate for 40 minutes. Andy, who I don’t think had ever tried meditation, and me, who had tried and struggled to meditate for even two minutes, would meditate for FORTY MINUTES. Our eyes were saucers. I mouthed an apology to Andy and we settled in as they began rhythmic chanting that faded into deafening silence.
I would love to say that 40 minutes later I was surprised to hear the bell clang, but it was not that easy. The breathing technique he gave us helped, but my entire right leg fell asleep and 40 minutes is a very long time. I moved around a bit, my eyes did not stay shut, and I strayed from the breathing focus. But we both stayed there and, though we didn’t do it well, we meditated with monks in a temple on top of a holy mountain in Japan.