Pilgrim's Tale VI

The is the last part in my account of my pilgrimage. Part V please click here.

From Shanghai I flew to Kansai International Airport in Osaka. I settled into a cosy hostel called UK Osaka. It is a small hostel, but the atmosphere made it feel like I was staying at a friend's apartment. I have stayed at many backpacker hostels before, but this was actually one of the best.

The next day I headed to Nara, which is less than an hour away from Osaka by train. I hadn't been back to Nara in about six years. Fortunately I arrived at the perfect time of the year when sakura or cherry blossoms were in full bloom.

Nara is famous for having been the capital of Japan between 710 - 784 CE. It is famous for having many old sites, both shrines and temples, as well herds of tame deer which wander the parks freely. Traditionally the deer were considered to be messengers of the gods. The locals sell shika senbei 鹿煎餅 which are baked crackers that are fed to the deer.

Kōfuku-ji 興福寺 is one of several notable temples in the city. It was originally built in 669 CE, but was relocated to Nara in 710 CE. When I visited a number of major buildings were undergoing extensive reconstruction. It will take several years for them to be completely refurbished and available to the public again. However, the iconic Tōkondo 東金堂 (East Golden Hall), which is a national treasure of Japan, and Five-Story Pagoda are still available for viewing.

Inside the hall are a number of aged statues and sculptures. The Nikkō-Bosatsu 日光菩薩 / Sūryaprabha (on the left with gold backing) dates from the 7th century CE. The other statues have various dates up to the 16th century.

The Nan'endō 南円堂 (South Octagonal Hall) is a site in the Kansai Kannon Pilgrimage (西国三十三所) where pilgrims visit a number of temples and shrine dedicated to the Bodhisattva Kannon 觀音菩薩, otherwise known as Avalokiteśvara, Guanyin or Chenrezig.

Another temple of note in Nara is Gangō-ji 元興寺 which was founded in the late 6th century and originally called Asuka-dera 飛鳥寺. It is said to be the first Buddhist temple to be constructed in Japan. The original temple was built in a different location during the Asuka period (538 to 710 CE) and in 718 it was relocated to Nara. Unfortunately, none of the original architecture remains, though the main hall dates back to the 13th century. Interestingly, the original temple was crafted by craftsmen and artists from the kingdom of Paekche on the Korean peninsula. They accompanied a group of monks who brought Buddha relics and were received by the court. Early Buddhism in Japan did not actually come from China. In reality it came from Korea.

The temple also has a small museum on site housing a number of artefacts. I found this statue of Acala rather impressive:

The almost symbolic Tōdai-ji 東大寺 was founded in the early 8th century. It served as a kind of university and center for Buddhist studies throughout the centuries.

The central figure inside the temple is Vairocana Buddha 毘盧遮那佛.

Earlier I wrote an entry about all the statues inside the temple, so if you're interested please click here.

After visiting Nara for the day I retired back to the hostel in Osaka. The next morning I made my way to Kōyasan for the first time in this life. It takes about two hours by train and cablecar. The train takes you to the foot of the mountain and from there you take a cablecar to get to the top.

The Kōyasan station is still some distance from the town itself. I decided to forego the bus and took the long route which was very rewarding given the near silent roadway, beautiful scenary or fresh mountain air.

On the west side of town you approach the Daimon 大門 or Great Gate.

From there you proceed into what looks like an otherwise normal mountain town.

After walking for a few minutes you arrive at the Danjō Garan 壇上伽藍 temple complex which was designed by Kūkai 空海, otherwise known as Kōbō-Daishi 弘法大師 (774–835), the founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism in Japan. The central point of the complex is the Konpon Daitō 根本大塔 stūpa.

Inside a statue of Mahāvairocana 大毘盧遮那 / 大日如來 is enshrined. Mahāvairocana in Shingon Vajrayāna is a symbol for the dharmakāya.

Another pagoda at the site is the Saitō 西塔, which while originally built in 887 CE was reconstructed in 1834. Japan traditionally built with timber which unfortunately has meant that many buildings throughout Japanese history have been destroyed by fire and rebuilt again and again.

A short distance away is the head temple of the Koyasan Shingon sect. Kongōbuji 金剛峯寺 as it stands now was built in the 19th century.

The temple also has a rock garden:

Onwards to the far side of town I stopped in for lunch and enjoyed a bowl of udon with mountain vegetables.

Oku No In 奥之院, the mausoleum of Kūkai, is in a vast graveyard which is home to countless gravestones and memorials for such famous Japanese figures as Oda Nobunaga, Shinran and Hōnen among others both old and recent.

It is a rather calm and serene place shaded by tall trees. I was surprised to see that modern companies have their own private plots presumably arranged for their employees. The graveyard, though quite ancient, is still used and being expanded upon.

Finally after walking the long stretch of pathway I arrived at the mausoleum of Kūkai which is surrounded by a kind of moat. Out of respect visitors are asked to refrain from all photography once crossing the bridge.

It was here where Kūkai's bones and ashes are emtombed that I finished my two month pilgrimage. I had visited countless temples in Hong Kong, India, Nepal, China and Japan. I made an offering of three candles to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, commiting myself to purifying body, speech and mind. I also paid my sincerest respects to Kūkai, the founder of Shingon.

It was a long trip of over sixty days and worth it. I have absolutely no regrets about the trip. In fact, I would say it was the greatest and most beneficial thing I have ever done in my life so far. I learned a great deal about myself, life, Buddhism, other cultures and history all the while meeting both old and new friends along the way. It was the generous people along the way that I owe the greatest gratitude toward. I made many new friends and had the good fortune to meet several old friends.

It was truly a positive and rewarding experience. The merit and good fortune I must have to be able to make such a journey was only possible because of the blessings of my teachers both past and present. To them I owe immeasurable gratitude.

Buddhaṃ śaraṇaṃ gacchāmi.
Dharmaṃ śaraṇaṃ gacchāmi.
Saṃghaṃ śaraṇaṃ gacchāmi.

For Part I click here.

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