The austere heart of Japanese Buddhism beats loudly at Koyasan, a monastic complex that lies two hours by train south of Osaka. Koyasan marks its 1,200th anniversary in 2015.
Established by revered scholar-monk Kobo Daishi in 816 as the headquarters for his Shingon school of Esoteric Buddhism, Koyasan remains one of Japan’s most pristine and sacred sites, manifesting a masculine side of Japan worlds away from the hostesses and Hello Kittys of Kyoto.
“Koyasan is purity,” says a monk after a crack-of-dawn fire ceremony, where a priest burns wooden wish-tablets to the boom of a taiko drum and the sprinkling of herbs and oils on high-leaping flames. Staying in one of the temples that welcome guests here opens a portal onto everyday monastic life. Waking to enshrouding mists, visitors are invited to join morning chants swirled by cymbals, gongs, and incense. At night, no-nonsense monks who began the day hand-scrubbing wooden hallways roughly plop vegetarian feasts in front of visitors.
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