Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Adventures in Japan

While traveling in Japan several years ago, I had the opportunity to visit a town called Koyasan and stay in a Buddhist monastery overnight.  The main monk who presided over the monastery was a very kind and humble man.  This monastery was a training center for young monks-in-training.  I called the head monk guy the MTC President (Monk Training Center), in a cleverly thought up reference to my own experience at the MTC (Missionary Training Center) in Provo, Utah.  Koyasan is located at the top of a mountain near a shrine, which is one of the seven most holy places in Japanese Buddhism.  My experiences there remains one of the most memorable of my life.

Me, the MTC President and my sister-in-law Toshiko in Koyasan, Japan, 1994
To get to Koyasan, we traveled by train from Kyoto for about 2 hours.  After passing many rice fields on the mostly flat, terrain, the train began to climb into the mountains.  After a time, the train could no longer handle the steep rise in elevation.  We alighted the train and boarded some cable cars which were pulled up the mountainside at a very steep angle on their own special tracks.  This took about 45 minutes.  It felt a lot like a rollercoaster when the chain drags you up that first hill.  At the end of this interesting mode of travel, we all transferred to a bus, which followed a long and winding road the rest of the way to the top of the mountain and into Koyasan.  By this time I had been awake for over 36 hours.  Ya see, Toshiko and I left my brother's house the previous night and caught the 10pm Orange Ferry from there (Niihama, on Shikoku Island) to Osaka on Honshu Island.  We were supposed to sleep during the 8-hour trip and arrive all refreshed for a great day of sight seeing, but the motion of the trip kind of ruined that plan for me.  We spent most of the day touring Kyoto.  By the time we arrived at the MTC in Koyasan, where we would be lodging, I was wasted.  Before I turned in, I went and took a soak in their public bath (alone).  Mmmmmm.  On my way back to the room I walked by a lounge area for the would-be monks.  They were kicked back watching "Last of the Mohicans" on cable.  Funny.  That's not how I had their lives pictured. 

Dan dan batake (terraced rice fields)
Located on the outskirts of Koyasan was an ancient cemetery.  Some of the graves in this cemetery dated back thousands of years.  In fact, I was told that a somewhat medium level shogun (or a daimyo) from the Tokugawa period (1603-1868) is buried there, although I can't back that up with a credible source.  Still cool, though.  This cemetery remains one of the most gorgeous places I have ever personally visited.  Japanese cemeteries are very different from cemeteries found in the United States.  The headstones are very close together, and dramatically vary in size and shape.  There are kami (Gods) statues everywhere you look.  The cemetery itself sits in the middle of a forest of huge trees, most of them Japanese cedars, and a veil of mist from the elevation and smoke from people burning things continually drifts across the entire scene.  There is a wide stony path right down the middle, which leads through the cemetery, across a stone bridge and on to the shrine itself.  

This guy walked very fast

A field trip from some school
The river over which the bridge crosses marks the border between the worldly and the sacred.  There is a sign there in Japanese and English that asks visitors to take no photographs beyond that point.  There is a series of about 7 kami statues rising out of a small trough of water, which is fed by the river.  There are ladles there for the public’s use.  I was told that, according to at least this sect of Buddhism, if you pour water over the kami in a place where you feel you need a blessing, it will come to pass.  You could pour it over the head, the heart, the loins, the arms, legs, etc.  I pretty much doused the thing.

Pour the water where you need the blessings

I found the shrine itself very interesting.  There was an outer courtyard that was welcome to everyone, an inner courtyard and part of the building that was only open to monks and an inner part of the shrine, called the holiest place, into which only a designated senior monk could enter to burn incense.  It immediately brought to me images of the ancient, Israeli Temples talked about in The Bible.  Interesting, huh?

This is my sister-in-law Toshiko and her cousin Sachiko.  Toshiko's grandfather is buried at Koyasan.  He was given that honor because he was a firefighter, and he helped save the shrine from a fire.  His descendants are allowed to lodge at the MTC located near by.

Back in our room at the MTC I sat in an open window overlooking a picture-perfect Japanese Garden eating some Kentucky Fried Chicken that I had brought with me in anticipation of a not too appetizing cuisine available there.  It was such a sublime feeling I had.  When I finished and wadded up the paper wrapper in which my meal came, I lost control of it and it bounced off my leg, off the window sill and out the window into the middle of that beautiful, secret garden.  Just a minute or 2 later, there was a knock at the door.  It was a young monk-in-training telling us that the MTC President wanted to see us.  It turned out to be only a coincidence, but at first I thought I was in trouble for sure.  The MTC President just wanted to meet us, and ask us how we were enjoying our stay, and if we needed anything.  He offered me green tea, which I declined.  You might think that he would be insulted, but he wasn't.  He was just a kind, humble man.

One more thing and then I'll leave you alone.  When we bade farewell to the MTC and were walking down the street back to where we parked, an out of breath, young monk caught up to us holding my camera that I had left behind.  After the fact, when I understood, I had to chuckle.  The young fellow was probably sent by the MTC President to give us our property back.  He hurried as fast as possible to catch us, but was not allowed to run or call out to us.  He had to walk fast for a couple of blocks before he finally caught up to us.  I thanked him profusely in Japanese (Domo arigato gozaimashita).  He grinned from ear to ear, so proud to have helped us out.  That was cool. 

These are such precious memories to me.  If I had a near death experience, and watched my life pass before my eyes, I'd stop at these scenes and savor it all over again.  So...

-Thanks for listening.


  1. These are beautiful photos. I especially love how the fog is not settled on the ground, but all through the trees.

  2. I've never heard stories of your visit to Japan or seen your pictures, that's very cool! Japan is one of the places on my list that I really want to visit before I die.

  3. Beautiful, John. Thanks for sharing with us. I'm not sure why this says its from Rebecca and Jason. I really am on my account. Love you! Sue

  4. Wow! Thank you for blogging about this. I've heard you talk about that experience a few times, but never in such great detail. That's why writing is so important. Beautiful!

  5. I'm smiling that you ate KFC in the "MTC". I reat that this is a Japanese Christmas tradition. .eating fried chicken on Christmas!