Tag Archives: Koyasan Japan

There Are Cemeteries. And Then There Are Cemeteries

… like the Père Lachaise in Paris where Jim Morrison is interred, the Jewish cemetery in Crakow, Westminster Abbey or the Komarovo in St Petersberg.Koyasan20140625_6934

Okunoin in Japan is one of those special places. Centuries old, it holds the ashes of famous emperors, shoguns, samurai and poets. Sprawling into the forests of the Koyasan valley, it has an enchanted feeling. Indeed, it is enchanted.

Koyasan is a valley between eight mountain peaks that make its geography like the lotus flower that is the symbol of enlightenment in Buddhism. The location was chosen in the ninth century by the Japanese monk Kukai, who brought esoteric Buddhism to Japan from China. He built a monastery here, and now this little town in the mountains has over 100 shrines, temples and monasteries.Koyasan20140625_0706

The entire valley is infused with spiritual energy. The monk, Kobo-Daishi as he is now known, requested of his disciples that he not be cremated, contrary to Japanese tradition. Rather, he asked them to place his body in a mausoleum in the forest. Legend has it that his body, in spite of not being embalmed, has not decomposed. Like the Jesus fable, believers say that Kobo-Daishi did not actually die, but rather he has entered a state of deep meditation and samadhi, and is waiting for the rebirth of The Buddha.

Regardless, it is certainly true that the cemetery around him has an amazing power of attraction and peaceful spirituality. We saw new, polished monuments and graves, modest but well tended markers and some whose family has forgotten, died off or moved to other lands.

Koyasan20140625_0708I myself would love to have my ashes placed in the shade of those graceful pines and the spot marked with coral rock (something geologically out of place I hope). Here, on this special mountain, it’s easy to imagine an afterlife communing with Japanese poets, having ethereal tea ceremonies or learning skills from legendary samurai blade makers. All the while, we will keep an eye on Kobo so we will be among the first to learn of Buddha’s rebirth.

Click on a thumbnail below for the picture viewer.


8 Surprising Things in Japan

I thought Japan would abound with origami items, origami displays and adults and children folding origami-everything, everywhere. Was I surprised!

Thousand Origami Cranes
Thousand Origami Cranes by Brian Jeffrey Beggerly

The only origami I saw was a string of a thousand cranes tied to the wooden shrine housing the Miroku Stone at Koyasan. The weight of this stone is supposed to represent the weight of our sins.  Each person is invited to try to lift the stone with one hand. The stone will feel heavier the more sins you have. Perhaps the person who left the cranes has some atoning to do.  I’m happy to say that we could both tip it up (but not really lift it). On the other hand, we saw our reflection in the sacred well, so, in Buddhist tradition, we have plenty of years left to do some sinning.

The other origami I encountered in Japan was a Japanese friend’s hobby. He makes 3-D origami buildings. In true origami form, he uses only one very large sheet of paper without making any cuts to make his architectural sculptures.

I was surprised that the Suzuki method of instrument playing for young children is unknown in Japan. Suzuki began his program in Japan in the 1960s but it took off in North America. I had really wanted to experience a class in Japan as my daughter began Suzuki violin at age 4 and progressed very well through the method.

Being a licensed pilot, I was wondering about the Japanese equivalent of the pilot’s alphabet (Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, …). I didn’t find it. I then searched the Japanese Morse code in which I was also interested. It seemed like an obvious segue.

image by Anthony Catalano
image by Anthony Catalano

I was so surprised to see over 128 Morse codes based on their language! And that’s not including numbers. Each Japanese letter can be composed of up to 10 individual dots and dashes! It’s a good thing I’m not Japanese because by the time I would finish deciphering a single word, I would have forgotten the beginning of the sentence. Not to mention the idiosyncrasy of Japanese language that, placed at the end, the verb of the sentence is. In other, words they all talk like Yoda.

Homeless Japanese people are ever so reverent with garbage. I watched as a homeless person carefully inspected many bags. Garbage is disposed of in clear plastic bags so it makes it easy to see what’s inside. He took what he wanted and then meticulously made a double knot to restore the bags the way he found them.

Unlike Ivan and I, Japanese don’t have a preference for old Akira Kurosawa films. And even if they did, I imagine they would never think of watching those films a second time to listen to the Directors notes as I loved to do. There’s so much I learned to appreciate about film-making from Kurosawa, the Master. They love their anime as I do, but I have a special fondness for the older Japanese treasures.

The babies here are all tooooo cute and they never seem to cry. I hardly ever see youngsters misbehaving. Mothers seem to have infinite patience with their children. They gaze happily and lovingly after their children, no matter what the child is doing or saying. They offer their undivided attention. I’ve seen only 2 crying babies and 1 toddler pulling at his mother’s skirt. I imagine these 3 kids were just a little under the weather. That gives Japan a perfect score in my book!

Of all the random and surprising discoveries in Japan, I never expected to see a specific genre of Brazilian drumming called maracatu. One of the first events we attended in Japan was a Cinco de Mayo festival. After watching a capoeira performance, I casually inquired if anyone knew about maracatu drumming and discovered that the capoeira teacher also had a maracatu band.

When I lived in Toronto, I drummed with Nunca Antes, a maracatu drumming troupe. I had heard the infectious rhythm of their energetic beat in my neighborhood late one night and followed the sound to a warehouse. I really missed maracatu and had been searching for it ever since. This was perfect. We drummed with this Japanese troupe one night. During our stay here, we watched their fabulous performances.

Osaka2014_7069I’m surprised that  Omamori charms are not chosen for their cute-appeal. Rather, each has a very specific purpose for personal protection, romance or luck.

I’m not really drawn to the talisman type of Omamori. These rectangular ones gain their power from words written on paper or wood. The words may be the name of the shrine, or a section from a sutra. They are then sealed inside a cloth bag that is never to be opened. I would not be able to resist looking inside, thereby forfeiting the power of the Omamori.

I like the modern Omamori that are very much a part of Japanese culture. Happiness, safety, romance, prosperity, longevity are all important to me, but I’m looking for one that has something to do with a sense of humor and not losing it.Osaka2014_7068