The Mundane behind the Sacred- Tourism of a Japanese Sanctuary

Daito Pagoda of Koyasan (Photo by Iroha)

“Maido, ōkini!!” (“Thanks” in Kansai dialect)
Delivery guys shout at us as they leave the kitchen from the back door. Foodstuff deliveries arrive incessantly to the large kitchen every morning. We open the boxes to check if we have everything to prepare the dinner. Sweet potatoes, aubergines, and Shitake mushrooms are for Tempuras, and sesame tofu is the famous delicacy of this mountain.

Mount Koya is located in Wakayama Prefecture in the middle-west of Japan’s main island. There are over 50 temples covering over the little Koya town located on the mountain top. I was standing in the kitchen in one of the temples. It was in April, the season of Sakura (cherry blossoms) blooming and I came to work as a helper for the town’s busiest time of a year.

Helping the Temple Lodging

The temples in the town are not only just temples. Traditionally, they have been used as lodges called Shukubo, to serve for monks and pilgrims from far away. Nowadays, they have been welcoming many tourists from all over Japan and overseas.
The guests can enjoy unique experiences, such as attending an early morning prayer and teachings by monks. Also, the delicious Japanese vegetarian cuisines are the main attraction. Usually, they serve a course consists of Goma-Dofu/sesame tofu (pudding-like sesame curd), Vegetable Tempuras (Frites) along with rice and miso soup.

Various little dishes using sesame tofu (Photo by Iroha)

Working in the kitchen, I was fascinated by the beautiful preparations of the dishes.
But at the same time, I had a sense that something was different from what I expected.
“Is this just a fancy hotel…?” That’s what I felt.

Mount Koya (or Koyasan) was registered as a World Heritage Site in 2004. The mountain has been worshipped as a sanctuary since a great monk Kūkai has founded his school Shingonshu as one of the main esoteric Buddhism sects in Japan. The town of Koya still amazes visitors today with its authentic landscape.

The trekking path (Photo by Iroha)

The pilgrimage routes starting from the foot of the mountain are covered with the magnificent forest of Koya cedars and now are appreciated as trekking paths.

I came here in search of clear air, and the silence away from the hustles of the world below. And actually, I expected to have some spiritual experiences.

However, working inside the temple, what I saw was something more mundane of the little cultural town, where the local people work together to support and maintain the traditional business called “Shukubo”. It was something of a disappointment.

“If I don’t experience an ordinary life, I cannot help ordinary people.”

The life of the monks seems to have so much less discipline than I would imagine. Many of them have one-year intensive training to be a monk. And after the training, they go back to ordinary lives. They can work in the commercial industry, start a business, get married, have families, and their own houses. They don’t have to keep vegetarianism either. One day, I talked with one monk and he explained in such a relaxed way.

Monks have regular duties to attend at the temples (Photo by Iroha)

“There is nothing wrong with a monk’s marriage. Because marriage and family problems are common problems for many people. And as a person to help them from these sufferings, I cannot give advice if I don’t know anything about marriage and children.

Of course, there many other different practices in Buddhism, so his comment would not represent all the monks. But, I was impressed by how he finds his way of self-practice in ordinary life.

The three cheerful women

You might think that temples are operated only by monks. But, they are greatly supported by the local women. They are being busy enough with housekeeping in their homes, but they come to help the neighbouring temple as it is understaffed. There were three ladies aged around 50s to 60s to help here. Working with them was so impressive, as they purely enjoy working for the guests, although no guests would know that they are the ones who keep the lodging beautifully.

The temple garden (Photo by Iroha)

They literally run sweating between the kitchen and other parts of the large temple, vacuuming and wiping the tatami mats in guest rooms, and come back to cooking the meals for the guest and resident monks.
”Take a rest! You’re hard-working!” sometimes they shout to each other to encourage. Their hands were small and chapped, but firm.
Their cooking was loving and hearty. One day, one of the women picked a bunch of fresh mint from her garden to serve it on fruit bowls for the guests.
“I thought it would be prettier with a bit of mint. The customer would be happy.” She smiled.

Photo by Shiro Yamamoto on Unsplash

After they prepared the day’s dinner, they finish their work and go home. When the guest arrives at the dining hall, it is the turn for the monks to serve the guests. We can rarely see the women. They are the great helper behind the scenes.

Through the work, I got to see the other side of this sanctuary mountain. It’s a mundane scene of Koya, where the monks, the families, and local people are working together, complaining about how busy it is, but still being willing to keep this cultural heritage. It’s certainly not what I expected at the beginning.

But, in a way, it reminded me that practising the good for the spirit doesn’t have to look peculiar.

(Photo by Iroha)

Shukubo lodging has been getting more popular, and the temples started to hire helpers from the outside as they are having less young students to help the lodging. It’s been a thriving business, but maybe too commercial and hectic. I sometimes think about the women wondering how they are doing.

If you ever visit there, take a moment to see the good intension of the hard workers behind the beautiful sceneries.

Thanks for reading!

If you are interested, you will find more stories of journey on my website.

Japanese writer based in Berlin.

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