Meditation with monks

A bell tolls at first light. The old timber "nightingale" floors chirp under stockinged feet, there's a whisper of saffron and black robes, a rumour of conversation and the monks enter the temple. Mist drifts around the eaves like incense and there's a chill in the mountain air, yet behind the sliding paper screens it's warm and dark. Low, golden lanterns illuminate an ornate altar, around which the monks sit perfectly still.

There are four monks, ageless, heads shaven. The head priest, seated in the middle facing the altar, lights a stick of incense. The monk to his left begins chanting softly, then the others. The words, incomprehensible to me, have a soothing monotony. The baritone sutras rise and fall, sinuous as breath, regular as heartbeat. My thoughts are lassoed by the rich ringing of a bell, the occasional collision of cymbals, but otherwise wander free no matter how I try to still them.

"Just focus on the breath," the chief priest, Ryusho Soeda, had suggested during meditation last night, though of more immediate concern is the acute discomfort of sitting in the customary seiza position - kneeling and seated on one's feet - for more than a few minutes. "Relax," he reassures later, "we have practised all our lives."

At the end of the ceremony I step outside. Before the temple is an urn holding a perfect lotus flower and a stone garden raked precisely into a swirling Sanskrit symbol. There is no trace of what I imagine to be a levitating gardener - his footsteps cannot be seen here or in the smaller pebble garden outsidemy room, framed by crepe myrtle and maple bearing the blush of autumn, which I gaze upon until the call to breakfast.

Rengejoin is one of 117 temples and more than 2000 shrines, pagodas, stupas and religious landmarks at Koyasan, a sacred mountain 1000 metres above the plains of Osaka to the north. At the beginning of time, gods descended to live in the Kii mountain range, spanning Koyasan and two other peaks that are nowWorld Heritage listed. Its dense forests became the spiritual heartland of Shinto, the indigenous Japanese worship of nature, and Buddhism, after it came from China.

The effect of entering this city of spirits is powerful and calming, regardless of one’s spiritual inclination.

In 816, after years of study in China, a Japanese monk named Kukai climbed the holy mountain of Mount Koya and created the first temple of the Shingon sect of Esoteric Buddhism among its eight peaks, said to resemble a lotus. As he travelled he became known in noble circles as a great thinker and calligrapher and among commoners, with whom he worked and taught, as a man of action. Kukai was regarded as a saint by the time he fell ill at the age of 62, when his followers believe he passed into a state of eternal meditation rather than death. Along with his body, the spirit of Kobo-Daishi, as he became known, is believed to reside at the end of a forest path in Koyasan.

On my way to his resting place I walk through the town, past young robed men shod in dazzling white socks and the wooden thongs called geta. The town has the usual services - general stores, a couple of cafes, a barber (it can't do so well, in a town where most men have shaved heads) - but the local haberdashery sells monks' working gear, the produce shops sell bunches of umbrellapine for home altars and there are mandala paintings and prayer beads, Buddhas and religious knick-knacks sold everywhere.

Just outside town and along a two-and-a-half-kilometre path beneath centuries-old cedars is the extraordinary cemetery, Okunoin. Once Kobo-Daishi was interred here, everyone wanted to be buried close by. It's thought half a million graves are here, the little carved stones of ordinary people beside the grand mausoleums of shoguns and emperors - all jumbled together and shrouded in moss and glowing in dappled sunlight. Mist hangs high in the cedars and all sound is muffled but the silence doesn't feel deathly. It is called the "forest therapy walk" by locals and the effect of entering this city of spirits is powerful and calming, regardless of one's spiritual inclination.

I pause at the third bridge. On one side is an audience of stupas ankle-deep in the gentle flow of the Tamagawa River, offered in memory of miscarried and aborted babies and people who have drowned. On the other is a line of Jizo statues (a powerful Buddhist protector) being doused with ladles of water - worshippers write the names of their dead loved ones on strips of wood, present them to the Jizo, splash water and pray for their souls. In the river beside them three women dressed in white robes are fully immersed, praying and chanting. And beyond the bridge is the mausoleum of Kobo-Daishi, surrounded by three peaks and a cluster of halls, one of them aglow with hundreds of oil lamps and flanked by two stone lanterns said to have been kept alight for 900 years.

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Beyond the cemetery is a network of walks through misty forests of cedar and hinoki. I walk through a landscape as mysterious as Hayao Miyazaki's animated films, quiet and wild, and in a country of extreme hygiene and order I understand why these mountains are sacred. Pilgrims still approach Mount Koya by the seven main paths, including the Choishimichi, or stone marker path, forged by Kukai and marked by 180 stone pagodas.

There are 52 temples in Koyasan that welcome travellers and a handful are well geared forWestern visitors. I stay in two shukubo, or temple lodgings: Muryokoin, with simple rooms and a pond full of koi as large as puppies; and Rengejoin, a larger temple with rooms as well appointed as any ryokan. Both shukubo have exquisite gardens and a similar daily routine: monks and guests attend prayers at 6am in the temple, followed by breakfast at 7am, evening meditation at 5.30pm, followed by dinner at 6.30pm, bathing until 10.30pm. If there are late-night bars in town, I don't find them.

Dinner on the tatami mats in my room at Muryokoin comes on three trays, each as perfectly composed as haiku poetry, and accompanied by a visit from Hidenori Iwawaki, who seems pleased when I address him as Masterchef.

Shojin ryori, a cuisine developed over more than 1000 years in Japanese Buddhist temples, is based on a religious commandment prohibiting the butchering of animals and is intended to encourage spiritual focus. There are no meat, fish or animal products used and no garlic, onions or strong flavourings. What I imagine might taste bland is quite the opposite. The subtle flavours and textures are a triumph of invention and refinement, based on balancing five colours, five flavours and five cooking methods.

Masterchef urges me to start with konnyaku "sashimi", little wedges of intensely coloured green, red and white jelly made from a starchy vegetable known as devil's tongue; its complicated preparation alone might employ a kitchen of monks. In a bowl of thick plum-flavoured miso is a square of goma dofu, a Koya specialty of ground roasted sesame seeds and arrowroot tofu, topped with a tiny autumn leaf carved from carrot as a nod to the season. A neat tangle of soypoached matsutake mushroom, which grows only under red pine trees in autumn, sits beside a plate bearing a roasted chestnut, two wedges of koya dofu, another mountain specialty of freezedried tofu, and a tiny pickled ginger root.

There's something pickled, something raw, slightly sweet and a hint of sourness, the crunch of lotus root beside the creaminess of eggplant, both tempura-fried, and delicate dipping sauces and stocks with each dish. The tastes and textures are so engrossing that eating becomes another form of meditation.

After dinner one night at Rengejoin, served on cushions in a large room framed by fusuma (very old sliding doors painted with scenes of mountain beauty) we're joined by Kiyomi Soeda, the head monk's 89-year-old mother and diminutive matriarch of the 700-year-old temple. In precise English, with barely an accent, she tells of growing up on the mountain, learning English as a child in far-away Tokyo and returning to Koyasan as a young woman when Englishwas regarded as the "enemy" language. At the end of World War II, suddenly her skill as a translator for the villagers and American troops was vital. She describes the post-war poverty - "we counted every grain of rice" - her marriage to a priest and their struggle to save Rengejoin from ruin. Faith is a great healer.

Next morning, after prayers and a perfectly composed breakfast, I ask head priest Soeda-san the difference between Zen Buddhism, well known in theWest, at least superficially, and the lesser known Shingon Buddhism, which originated here on Mount Koya. "They are different paths to the top of the same mountain," he explains over a cup of hojicha, roasted green tea. They are difficult concepts to explain in a second language but he is unflappable - "Zen", I might have said before I knew better. Zen would deny desire, he says, but Shingon recognises it exists and "seeks to transform it".

Evening meditation in the temple lasts exactly 40 minutes, the time it takes to burn a stick of incense - "long enough to gain some spiritual tranquillity", Soeda-san says. An old stereotype has an exhausted Japanese salaryman returning home to his wife with only three words: Meshi! Furo! Neru! (meal, bath, bed), the words symbolic of an empty marriage. For me, the routine is deeply therapeutic: morning meditation, breakfast, walking, reading, evening meditation, meshi (three trays of shojin ryori), furo (a long, hot soak in a big wooden bath) and neru, a long, dreamless sleep. My own modest nirvana.

Helen Anderson travelled courtesy of the Japan National Tourism Organisation and Singapore Airlines.

FAST FACTS

Getting there Singapore Airlines flies to Osaka for about $1150, with an aircraft change in Singapore. Jetstar flies from Melbourne for $854 and from Sydney for $716, both with an aircraft change at the Gold Coast. (Fares are low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax.) From Kansai Airport, take a 40-minute train to Nankai Namba Station in Osaka, then a train bound for Gokurakubashi, which takes about 75 minutes, then a 10-minute cablecar ride to Koyasan.

Staying there Shukubo, or temple lodgings, usually have simple tatami-mat rooms and futons with shared toilets and a traditional communal bathhouse (separate genders). Breakfast and dinner are usually included in the tariff. Rate for each person at Muryokoin from ¥9500 ($116); book by phone via Koyasan Shukubo Temple Lodging Cooperative, +81 736 56 2616, see shukubo.jp/eng. Rooms at the more upmarket Rengejoin cost from ¥9500 a person twin share, from ¥11,550 for a single. Phone the temple on +81 736 56 2233.

- Rent bicycles and English-language audio guides at the Koyasan tourist information centre, where you can also buy a ticket covering admission to six of the major temples and museums. See shukubo.jp/eng.

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