I have not yet been disappointed when I visit a Unesco World Heritage Site and Koya-san was no exception. It was a long drive from Kyoto, with a few interesting things to snap on the way to the cool of the mountain where over 117 temples are situated.
The first monastery was founded there in the early ninth century by a monk known now as Kobo Daishi. He founded the Shingon (true word) school of Buddhism, but is often referred to as the father of Japanese culture, a sort of Japanese Leonardo da Vinci. He devised the Japanese writing systems, opened the first public school, invented pond irrigation, discovered mercury and complied the first dictionary. He was also a master calligrapher, poet, sculptor and healer. The Garan, a bright orange temple is where he founded the original monastery.
According to Singon tradition, Daishi did not die in 835 , but entered eternal meditation, waiting to return as Miroku, the future Buddha who will lead the faithful to salvation. That is why many Japanese wish to have their ashes buried on Koya-san. We visited the Mausoleum of the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu and his son Tokugawa Hidetada. Situated in a peaceful corner, the wooden carvings and detail on them were intricate and beautifully crafted.
I had only uttered the words, “wouldn’t it be good to see some monks” when twenty or so of them filed down the street, bringing the temple alive.
People entering the temples and pilgrims making their way bring the town alive too. There is a pilgrim route all over Shikoku island where there are 88 temples to find.
It was time for lunch before we headed back on the road and we chose a cafe specialising in tofu. Whipped tofu in batter, smoked tofu, tofu with pickles and tofu with all sorts of pretty decorations – a very filling lunch!