I immediately noticed a different feeling about the place. The fresh alpine air filled my lungs as I took in a deep breath and a strange sense of peace and reverence washed over me. Koyasan, a sacred site on the top of a peak in the Kii Mountain Range (Wakayama Prefecture), was definitely another world, far away from the hustle and bustle of daily life below it. Little did I know, I had arrived on the day of Kechien Kanjo, one of the most important ceremonies of Shingon Buddhism. In this ritual, wisdom water is offered to the participants in order to wash away the worldly desires. I wondered if it really worked and decided to find out.

After taking the bus to the main area of Donjon Garan, I blindly followed a group of pilgrims carrying walking sticks with jangling bells. They were wearing all white clothing and cone-shaped bamboo hats. Some were chanting sutras. Everyone carried a votive candle and a handful of brightly-colored flowers. I followed them along a dirt path lined with stones until we reached a clearing. Before my eyes a towering orange and white pagoda stretched into the sky. It was dusk and fire torches flickered around the pagoda. The air was heavy with incense. Monks dressed in vibrant ceremonial shades of orange and purple tended to the shrine inside the pagoda, performing rituals as both pilgrims and bystanders watched on. “Welcome,” an old man as wrinkled as piece of dried fruit said to me with a gap-toothed smile as I stood solemnly in front of the shrine, bowing my head in reverence. “Arigato gozaimasu,” I replied, bowing. I walked on. Near the edge of a thicket of towering cedar trees was an enormous wooden structure, one that (in my opinion) rivalled Nara’s Todaiji Temple as the largest wooden structure in the world. I figured this structure, called Kondo, was at least the second.

After consulting my trusty brochure given to me by the nice people at the train station, I saw that it had been built by Kukai in 819 (although the present hall was built for the 7th time in 1932). Kukai, or Kobo Daishi (his posthumous name), is the Japanese monk responsible for spreading Shingon Buddhism in Japan. He lived from 774 to 835 and during his life travelled to China to study with the mystics there. After returning to Japan, he founded Koyasan as a retreat away from the world. Koyasan, surrounded by eight peaks, was selected because the terrain it lies in resembles a lotus plant. There are several sects of Buddhism in Japan, including Tendai, Shingon, Pure Land, Zen, and Nichiren. Kukai is the founder of Shingon. Although the pale gray of dusk had set in, I decided to forget about curing my desire for worldly treasures and head to Okunoin, a massive graveyard among the towering cedar trees of the Koyasan forest. From Donjon Garan, it was about a fifteen minute walk to Sando, the entrance path. Along the way, shopkeepers were closing up for the day and the streets were empty and silent. I wondered if I should really be wandering through Japan’s largest graveyard at night.

Upon arrival however, I was relieved to find the entrance path lined with lanterns that cast a flickering pale glow so I could see where I was going. A few other brave souls had also decided to venture through the graveyard at night and the only sound was the wind in the trees. The graveyard was impressive to say the least, filled with the headstones of monks, military commanders, and a few commoners. Passing by some of the towering headstones, I noticed the older ones were written in Sanscrit, the language of Buddhism from India, circa 4th century BC. Because of the festivities going on, I passed a few monks along the path and two kilometers later, I arrived at Kukai’s mausoleum in the heart of the forest, next to the quiet Tama River. Because of the festivities, the mausoleum was still open and monks flitted about quietly, replacing incense sticks. Monks still bring food to Kukai everyday, as they believe he is not dead but meditating. They feed and change his clothes everyday and no one but the highest monks are allowed to see him. The mausoleum was bedecked in gold lacquer and red upholstery. A group of pilgrims chanted sutras in Sanskrit and I felt like I had been transported to another world. As I turned around to leave, I noticed with dread that the sky was black above me. Graves stretched before me as far as the eye could see and the trees shifted in the wind. A bird cried out. As I began to walk quickly along the path through the forest, I made a mental note that next time, I would definitely come back during the day.