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KOYASAN

Mount Koya or Koyasan is a 1200 year old sacred temple town in the mountains of northern Wakayama Prefecture. 

Danjo Garan is a sacred temple complex that can be described as the center of Koyasan. Within the grounds stand a number of halls, temples (over 100) and a grand pagoda. It is a quiet and secluded place where Buddhist monks may train. The Danjo Garan is said to express the world depicted in the Womb Realm Mandala. There is a correct order in which to pay homage to the sites according to the ancient Ryodan Nyodo. 

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fire ceremony
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Morning Prayer
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Our visit starts with an early morning prayer and a traditional ritual called goma taki (fire ceremony). This is a ritual that is unique to Vajrayana and Esoteric Buddhism in which prayers and wishes are written on wooden sticks, which are burned in the fire as the monks chant Buddhist mantras and recite their prayers. This is believed to burn away their excess wishes and desires to achieve a simple, appreciative life. The fire is meant to destroy negative energies and purify the mind, body, and spirit. The ceremony is dedicated to Fudō Myō-ō, the Buddha of Compassionate Fire, an important practice in Shingon Buddhism and is done each day to revitalize the mind and purify the spirit.

We arrived at Kechien Kanjo (Taizokai), one of the most important ceremonies of Koyasan Shingon School as well as Dai-Mandala-Ku.  In this ritual of Esoteric Buddhism, the blindfolded participant throws a flower into the Womb World Mandala (Taizokai) to establish a link between the participant and one of the emanation forms of Dainichi Nyorai. Under the supreme mercy of Buddha, wisdom water is offered to the participants in order to wash away the worldly desires immediately.  On the first day of this ceremony, the procession of the chief priests of Koyasan temples parade from DAIE-DO hall to KONDO hall in their colourful ceremonial robes.

There are LOTS of people that came to watch, my whole idea to photograph Koyasan with only monks became much more challenging.

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Ready to start at any moment last arrangements are done. The chief priests of Koyasan walk out of hall and  from here on I follow them.

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The small path that winds its way from the entrance to the Garan towards the east side of the Toto pagoda is called Jabara-michi. Kobo Daishi likened Mount Koya’s layout to the belly of a reclining dragon: the Danjo Garan is the head, with the area spanning up to Rengein being the figure of a dragon. The Jabara-michi happens to fall around where the dragon’s stomach would be, which is what the name of the path means (technically “snake’s belly”).

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Passed Konpon Daitō (根本大塔) the "Basic Great Pagoda" that according to Shingon Buddhism doctrine represents the central point of a mandala covering all of Japan. Everything around is beautiful, rich in colours and a great sense of elegance.  

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At some point I noticed a pilgrim, with a little hand gesture I asked how long he's been walking in the forest, he showed me a goshuin book and flipped through all the pages which was filled with beautiful calligraphy and stamps on it. I learned that each page with its calligraphy and stamp means the name of a temple and its main deity.  With that I figured he has visited many if not almost all the Kumano Kodo sacred places. Behind him there is the Rokkaku Kyuzo, hexagonal sutra repository on the Koyasan area, one of the few remaining in Japan where anyone is allowed to rotate it. Like the Tibetan prayer wheels, rotating the rinzō symbolizes the reading of the sutra. 

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Chumon Gate at the entrance to the whole complex of Danjo Garam, lost in a fire back in 1843 and rebuilt 170 years later in 2015 for the 1,200th anniversary of Mount Koya,  has four consecrated figures: Jigokuten, Tamonten, Komokuten, and Zochoten.

Jigokuten and Tamonten date to the original Chumon gate spared the fire and have been preserved and restored up to the present. Komokuten and Zochoten are new originals courtesy of Myokei Matsumoto, a master Buddhist sculpture carver.

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Jikokuten 持國天

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Komokuten 広目天

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Tamonten 多聞天

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Zochoten 増長天

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Jikokuten 持國天, the name means Guardian of the Nation. He guards the east and his element is water. Associated with strength his colour is either blue or green and his season is spring.

Komokuten 広目天, guardian of the west, he sees all and sees through evil. His season is the autumn, his colour is white and element metal.

Tamonten 多聞天, sometimes called a God of War, he was to a certain extent adopted by samurai. Guardian of the North, his associated element is Earth, his season is winter and his colour is white. All-knowing and all-hearing, Tamonten is associated with wealth.

Zochoten 増長天, guardian of the south, Zochoten is associated with both prosperity and spiritual growth. His season is summer, his colour is red, and his element is fire.

My attention gets back to my surroundings as I hear the gradual and rhythmic “clacking” sound of the traditional Japanese wooden sandals (called Geta) walking over tiny little pebbles, it gets louder as it gets closer transforming the pathway into a “walking” orchestra. The visual and aural pattern created by those young monks was hypnotizing.

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Walking ceases by Miedo temple, originally Kobo Daishi’s own training hall and later used to enshrine an image of Kobo Daishi created by Takaoka Shinno, at which time it was given the name of “Great Portrait Hall.” This temple is considered the most sacred location on Mount Koya. The ceremony will continue for the next following days.

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Before leaving Koyasan, one last place to visit, Okunoin, the final resting place of many of the nation’s most important historical and religious figures.  Japan’s most sacred place, one of the central pillars of faith in Mount Koya. Here it is said to be where Kobo Daishi entered the next world.

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Okunoin's graveyard contains over 200,000 distinctive gravestones and monuments.

According to the beliefs of Shingon Buddhism there are no dead in Okunoin but rather waiting spirits. Kobo Daishi is believed to rest in here in eternal meditation as he awaits Maitreya, the future Buddha. When the time arrives not only him, but all the resting spirits shall rise up.

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Twice a day monks bring food to Kobo Daishi, as they believe he is not dead but meditating. A glimpse of the Mausoleum as monks arrive with Kobo Daishi's meal.

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River by Gobyobashi Bridge (御廟橋), which is closest to the worship hall of where Kobo Daishi is. 

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A beautiful way to wrap up our visit in Japan. Surrounded by the beauty, belief and energy of Mount Koya, I feel connected to it and incredibly inspired. I look forward to not only carry but to share this rich experience with others.