Well before the day began, barely haven awoken ourselves, we left. It was wet, but even in the dreary weather I felt excitement. The kind you get at the start of the journey, when there is nothing in front of you but opportunity.
By sunrise, the car coasted over the hills of Kobe. I tapped out tunes against the steering wheel and grinned at the open mouthed, crooned-necked sleeping bodies beside me. The thirty minute final countdown to Osaka stretched into an hour and an emergency potty break led to thrifty city parking. I had dreaded driving through Osaka, but as we dropped Chelsea off at the Prefectural Gymnasium, I felt invigorated! The hustle of thousands couldn’t reach me in the car. We were low to the ground and from the middle of the road, I could see the sky atop the towering buildings. It called to me, This way! Come this way! And all too soon, we did.
And we were gone. Gone into endless mountain tunnels. Through their exhausted open mouths, we plunged into nature. The Japanese cedar trees had replaced the skyscrapers. The roads weaved up crooked bends and they narrowed so that I felt death whispering to us.
On the side of the road, often over looked, there was a post, “滝 300m”. It may have seemed insignificant to those who couldn’t read Japanese, probably even to those who could. But, I knew we should stop. The first thing I saw was another sign. “Beware of bears!” it read. Adrenaline filled me as we crept up the ascending path. The forest was covered in dew and the scene was too beautiful to keep my camera at bay. Just as I raised it to my eye, Angie screamed. I knew death was looming!
But I couldn’t find it. Where was the bear? There is something over there. Her words drew me to the staircase immediately. (Surely, my curiosity isn’t good for my health, I think now in retrospect.) What she had found, nearly stumbled upon, was a creature indeed. Alive or not, I am unsure of even now. But it was still. Unnaturally so. The mountain’s perspiration had only just begun to cling to its fur. I marveled at how remarkable it all was. How had it come here, to lay its head so perfectly upon the wooden stairs? To end its tired journey upon the beginning of our own?
This is how we entered Koyasan. Around the bend and through a tunnel and it was there. The quaint cold mountain town of 180-some temples. Despite the three day weekend, it had an open and empty air. Was this because of the snowfall a few days before? It was about 10 in the morning, and I already felt we had lived through a whole day, but we parked the car and walked to Oku no In.
How can I describe the experience of walking through this cemetery? Eerie, for sure, but we were propelled by the contrast of traditional and sometimes comical contemporary gravestones. A few hundred meters in, we turned into the forest. Tombs towered over us and over them towered the trees, and I could feel it. That magic of Japanese folklore. The spirituality of the forest. It was there, living in the depth of their 200, 300, 600 year old trunks, seeping into their earth with their roots, filling us with the purity of the air.
A fine mist danced upon the tree ridge and we carefully walked along the stone pathway donated by an old Geisha House proprietor. An English hobbyist told us stories of the graves and the legends of their owners. Moss carpeted the decrepit stone, and only some were adorned with the cedar twigs that are better suited to survive the cold weather. I was enraptured by the myth of a well that says those who cannot see their reflection in the water only have 3 years to live. Gleefully laughing that we all saw our face in the bottom of the well, I slightly stumbled over the neighboring stairway, and before we knew it we were in the world of the living once again.
Chilled by the cold mountain air and lack of sleep, we replenished our bodies with some Taiyaki. The rich custard gave me a spurt of energy and off we went to Kongobuji Temple.
We trailed the line of tourists around the temple. The rooms inside was hand painted with scenes from Japanese tales. The outside was adorned with a the largest rock garden in Japan. Impressed with its enormity, we continued to the neighboring Goran complex.
Inside the Daito, monks led prayers. We gazed upon decoration and inhaled incense. Angie hurried to catch a bus and we left for Jukai, a buddhist ceremony. I couldn’t understand that was said too well, but I can still see the room when I close my eyes. It was pitch black, except for a candle at the altar and two dim lights on the stairs that led up to the platform where the monk sat. The orange glow behind him gave his silhouette a chilling omnipresence. His voice and the mantra, Namu daishi henjou kongou, linger within me.
Dusk broke and we crept back through the cemetery with a monk from Eko-in Temple. Lanterns illuminated the pathway, each displaying a moon on its side. Nobu-san, the monk, explained that they are there to remind us that like the moon, our heart also has many phases.
About half way through, we stopped at the base of some gradual stairs. He pointed his flashlight to the steps. It is said that those who fall on these stairs only have three years to live. I faced Charles, his eyes locked with mine, and I recalled having slightly tripped on those very steps earlier that day.
With much to reflect upon, we lingered at the end of the cemetery. I watched the slow flicker of candles and the heavy glow of the lanterns that illuminated the mausoleum of Kukai. When we finally left, just the two of, our rich conversations filled the forest. Charles gleamed as he recounted the way Nobu-san would shine his flashlight on the steps of a bridge and say, careful, that’s three years! and I slightly cringed at my impending doom.
A ways above us, at the tops of the trees perhaps, you could see us. Walking in tandem, deep in each others company. Eventually we would leave your sight, but our story remains with you, I’m sure.