Pilgrims at Japan’s Koyasan, Long After Scidmore

Shingon monks at Mount Koya (Source: Jim Harper, on Wikipedia)


Today, Buddhists and other pilgrims flock to the sacred site of Koyasan, a mountainous area of temples in southeastern Japan.

The New York Times ran an article about it in the Oct. 22 travel section. Eliza Scidmore wrote about Koyasan in 1907 for National Geographic. It’s interesting to see the different takes on the same place a century apart.

A monk known as Kobo-Daishi chose the site 1,200 years ago to serve as the center of an esoteric Shingon sect of Buddhism.

Buddhism aims to free its practitioners from suffering and the endless cycle of death and rebirth. That liberation — or elevated state of being — can come through various paths.  The Shingon sect emphasizes the practice of certain daily rituals to reach enlightenment.

Scidmore’s article contains the humorous note she showed in many of her writings. “One meets memorials and traditions of Kobo Daishi in every part of Japan, but at Koyasan he is naturally all-pervading and extreme,” she wrote.

 That forceful person could have known no rest during his brief span of sixty years, for ten men could hardly have built all the temples and shrines, carved the statues, painted the pictures, planted the pine and camphor trees, climbed the mountains, lighted the lanterns, started the sacred flames, or performed all the miracles attributed to him.”

A ‘Japanese Valhalla’

Koyasan held the gravesite of Kobo-Daishi, making the place a popular pilgrimage site. Many visitors brought the ashes of loved ones. They believed, Scidmore wrote, that the remains would be carried to the “Pure Land of Perfect Bliss” with the holy one.

Walhall, the hall of dead warriors, by Emil Doepler, 1905 (Source: Norse Mythology, at Wikipedia)

Scidmore called Koyasan “the Japanese Valhalla.”

The analogy referred to a poem of Norse mythology. It relates the story of how the god Odin chose elite warriors who died in battle to reside with him in a great hall, waited on by the beautiful Valkyries. An underworld of the valorous, as it were.

Every great family in Japan had a monument or cluster of tombs at Koyasan, Scidmore wrote. The temples held thousands of mortuary tablets. But even the humblest of visitors could toss a fragment of a cremated body into the well at the Hall of Bones alongside the tomb of Kobo-Daishi.

I love reading good travel writing as an armchair adventure. But in this case, having read Scidmore’s account of Koyasan in my research, the Times’s article seemed shallow.

Okunoin cemetery at Koyasan

Okunoin cemetery at Koyasan (Source: Wikipedia)

The writer described it as a place of pilgrimagege but offered little historical or cultural context.

She went seeking respite “from the frenetic anxieties of New York,” she wrote. “Like many others … I also wanted something a little bit naïve and capitalistic: to buy an ascetic experience.”

I continue to be amazed by the erudition and thorough research that Eliza Scidmore brought to her travel writings more than a century ago. She really did her homework as a reporter.

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