Coming from the southeastern region of the states, my knowledge of
Japanese, strike that, Asian history and culture was seriously lacking prior to my arrival to Japan. Not only did my high school world history class breeze through the chapter (yes, one chapter) of East Asian history, but to further my ineptitude, I went on to college and studied American and British literature and English writing and grammar. Therefore, in the realm of Japanese history and culture, I still have a lot of catching up to do.
However, with the international exchange group, WhyNot!?, I traveled to Mount Koya in Wakayama prefecture in order to stay in a temple and observe the practices of a particular sect of Japanese Buddhism. As of now, I have already discredited myself as an open book of Japanese culture, but I do know that several of my Japanese friends and acquaintances affiliate themselves with Buddhism. However, other than common practices, such as praying at shrines or participating in certain holiday events, I have never been exposed to or had the opportunity to observe more traditional Buddhist practices.
With a group of about 40 people, I stayed in Henjo-koin, a temple built by Kobo Daishi. Together, we hiked through the mountains and enjoyed the surrounding town. We learned ajikan meditation, practiced shakyo or shabutsu (copying sutras or tracing Buddha) and ate vegetarian Buddhist meals. During our stay in the temple, an older Buddhist man guided us through and explained all these customs. Contrary to the serious and incredibly composed Buddhist I had in mind, he was warm and welcoming, had an incredible sense of humor and was always eager to show us his religious customs.
Many people travel to Koyasan as religious pilgrims who are striving for a deeper understanding. I wanted to visit in order to be exposed to different religious practices, see the beautiful town of Koya and make new friends. Traveling with WhyNot!? was a great way to explore a new place and meet an incredible group of people! I’m looking forward to my next trip with these fabulous new friends!