by Alvin Kawakami
Koyasan, was founded in 816 by a young monk named Kukai. I kid you not. He established the Shingon sect of Esoteric Buddhism. This is the only buddhist sect that believes enlightenment can be reached in this lifetime. He was posthumously known as Kobo Daishi. He had to get rid of the Kukai. Actually, he is not believed to be dead but in eternal meditation waiting for the coming of the future Buddha.
I get to the tourist info center and pay for my two night shukubo(temple lodging) stay. There are about 53 temples that offer this type of lodging. The first night is at Sekishoin and the second at Shojoshoin. But it's not gonna turn out that way as you shall soon see. There's this monk there who seems like the mayor of Koyasan or something. He parks himself at the center and greets people as they come through. Very friendly and personable. Found out later he also teaches high school at Koyasan. He speaks some english and I tell him I'm staying 2 nights. He seems surprised and chuckles a little bit. Does he know something I don't?
I see a sign there for the Koyasan Interpreter Guide Club. They do english guiding as a free service and also by appointment for a fee. I knew about them before and wanted to use them. They have a website with short stories of people they've taken. The guy there tells me to call them to make an appointment.
As I walk out of the center I see a japanese couple standing there. The lady has a nametag and looks vaguely familiar so I ask her "Are you a guide?". She looks at me and says "yes, are you Alvin Kawakami?". I almost fainted. How does she know my name? It turns out that I emailed them several months ago inquiring about their service. I got no response and forgot all about it. Her name is Teruko Yasukawa and she goes by the nickname, Shining Oteru. She gives me a copy of her email response to me that I never got. I agree to have her guide me but first I do an early check-in at the temple. They tell me dinner is at 5:30, prayer is 6:30am, and breakfast at 7.
Oteru starts me out at Ichinohashi, a bridge at the entrance to Okunoin cemetery. I soon find out she is very enthusiastic about Koyasan and a devoted buddhist. There is a well there with ladles to cleanse yourself. She teaches me the proper way to do it. We then can enter Okunoin. She points out all the gravestones of famous people in japanese history. The cemetery winds through huge stands of cedar trees. The gravestones are covered in moss and some of them are even falling over. Oteru says that there are 200,000 gravestones here but there aren't actual bodies but just parts like hair, finger nails, and clothing. Photography is not allowed after the third bridge. We come across something called the "Murokuishi". It's a latticed wooden hut with a square space that you can fit your arm through. There's two levels with a good sized rock inside. Legend has it that if you can lift the rock to the next level, it is equal to the weight of your sins. I told Oteru no sense I even try and we moved on.
The Hall of Lamps is a building with what else, lamps. There are two there that they say have been burning for 900 years. Better not sneeze around there. Behind the Hall of Lamps is Kobo Daishi's mausoleum. I offered incense at the altar and make a machigai(mistake). While trying to stand the incense up, it falls in the ashes. Oteru gasps and immediately reaches in to pick it up. Oh boy, I'll never reach nirvana at this rate. Oteru teaches me the heart sutra and we chant it 7 times. It finally hits me that I'm probably standing on the most sacred spot in Japan. I feel like shaving my head, donning a robe, and reciting the sutras while sitting under a waterfall.