One of my most sensuous memories is of a tree, in a forest of ancient cedars on top of Mt. Koya. A soft rain had awakened the musty smells of earth, and the glow of lanterns had transformed the pathway lined with ancient tombs and monuments into a place of magic. But it was my companion, a head-shaven monk from-of all places, Utah-who acquainted me with the spiritual power of touch. Commanding me to close my eyes, he led me to one of the giant trees, where my fingers explored wet, gnarled bark and moss so soft it made you want to sleep vertically. Even then, I knew it was one of those moments you remember for the rest of your life. Since that encounter with the tree almost 20 years ago, I’ve returned many times to Mt. Koya (called Koyasan in Japanese), one of the most sacred mountaintop retreats in Japan. Standing 3,000 feet above the world, Mt. Koya became a place of meditation and religious learning more than 1,190 years ago, when a great priest named Kobo Daishi established his Shingon sect of Buddhism here in 816. Revered for his humanitarianism and teachings, Kobo Daishi remains one of the most beloved figures in Japanese Buddhist history. When he died in the 9th century, he was laid to rest in a mausoleum on Mt. Koya. Faithful followers, however, believe he is not dead but rather in a restive state of meditation, awaiting the arrival of the last Buddha messiah.

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Shojoshinin–one of 50-some temples open to overnight guests

Today, Mt. Koya is home to more than 115 Shingon Buddhist temples, some 50 of which offer simple accommodations. This summer I returned to Koyasan with my 15-year-old son, Matthias, where we spent the night in Ekoin, a temple with origins stretching back more than 1,000 years. We dined on vegetarian food, slept on futon laid out on the tatami floor by young monk apprentices, and awoke at 6:30 to attend the morning chants and goma fire ceremony. I thought Matthias might object to the early hour, but he was up before me and urged me to hurry. Afterward he said it was cool, but the perpetually sleep-deprived teenager said he probably didn’t need to do it again.

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Matthias on the pathway to Okunoin

The town of Mt. Koya is small, with only one main street and a population of about 5,000, a thousand of them monks. In 2004, Mt. Koya was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which has brought more foreigners to Koyasan than I’ve ever seen before. In fact, Mt. Koya is so easily accessible from Kansai International Airport, some visitors visit Koyasan in transit on international flights. Mostly, however, I see henro, pilgrims who have visited all of Shikoku’s 88 temples and are making this their last stop to pay respects to Kobo Daishi.

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Kongobuji Temple’s famous rock garden

There are several things to see on Mt. Koya, including Kongobuji Temple with its serene rock garden and artwork, but for me, it’s that pathway that draws me back to Koyasan again and again. Stretching more than a half kilometer through a dense forest of cedars, iridescent green moss, and shafts of sunlight streaking through the treetops, it’s lined with more than 200,000 tombs and monuments, erected by faithful followers through the centuries who wanted to be near their great priest-whose mausoleum lies at the end of the pathway-when he awakens. There’s something indescribable about walking the same path that emperors, feudal lords, samurai, and common people have trod for centuries (though women, I might add, were barred from entering the sacred grounds of Mt. Koya until 1872). The tombstones spreading from the path deep into the woods read like a Who’s Who of Japanese history, including those of general Oda Nobunaga, Tokugawa Yorinobu, Kabuki actor Ichikawa Danjuro the first, and members of the Matsudaira, Toyotomi, and Maeda clans. I usually walk the pathway twice, in the day and again at night when it’s lit with stone lanterns and I’m often the only person out and about. As Matthias and I explored the seemingly endless side paths and tombs, I looked around us and remarked, “Look, Matthias, we’re the only ones here.” But with all those graves, not to mention Kobo Daishi, I never felt we were completely alone.

When it comes time to descend the mountain by cable car, it’s always with a sense of loss, as though I’m leaving heaven for the confusion of the modern world.

Might it not, I wonder, be the same for Japanese dead, who according to Buddhist belief, revisit our world every year during Obon?

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Painted Fusuma at Kongobuji Temple

More about Mt. Koya/Koyosan.

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