Love, loss and beanies: a half-baked pilgrimage

Thousand-year-old Buddhist enclave perched on a mountain-top. Temples. Shrines. Steep cable-car. Living tradition. I was hooked as soon as I saw Koyasan in the Japan tour guide. How could it not be on the itinerary for our family holiday?

My research effort, a single page in the Lonely Planet, told me that Japanese people make the pilgrimage to Koyasan and its ancient cemetery to honour the dead.

Immediately, this short leg of our journey took on a special significance. My mother had embraced Japanese Buddhism in the years before she died, too young, too long ago. This would be my chance to do something special in her honour. I would bring a token of her to leave in this deeply spiritual place, I decided, keenly anticipating of the loving peace the gesture was sure to deliver.

I arrived to discover that Koyasan is indeed a beautiful and deeply spiritual place.

Yet, in a combination of the blessed nature of family travel and the stubborn opacity of Japan (read Peter Carey’s delightful Wrong About Japan for more on that), I just couldn’t figure the place out.

An audio tour of the town promised fascinating insights, but the kids would never have tolerated the pace. Ditto, scouring museums. We turned up for a nighttime tour of Oku-no-in, the cemetery, only to find it was in French.

I didn’t need any extra information to be blown away by beauty of the shrine where Kobo Daishi, the founder of Koyasan’s Shingon school of Buddhism, is believed to be meditating in his tomb these last 1200 years (thankyou Lonely Planet). Or to be moved by the depth and resonance of the monks’ early morning chanting.

But was I doing the right thing with the incense? The ladels and water and multiple Buddha statues out the front looked important, but for what? And how? What were the colourful bibs and hats doing on all the statues? What were the golden charms and what should you do with them?

Here I was, surrounded by opportunities to honour my dead, with no idea how.

Anticipation of my grand moment of loving peace evaporated. It turned out I didn’t want to leave a token of my mum at Koyasan. It may be a beautiful and spiritual place, but it wasn’t my spiritual place.

Instead, I brought a bit of Koyasan back with me. The Buddhist supermarket over the road sold bulk lots of pretty lotus flower candles and I burn one on the mantlepiece at home.

I mightn’t have got the detail, but I was touched by the essence of shrines for the dead: the candles, the coins, the tokens, the snacks, the tending and caring.

It delighted me to see statues adorned with colourful, woollen hats. They seemed to acknowledge that people live on in a real and complicated way in our hearts. They’re gone, but we still have a desire to look after them. To connect with them, keep their heads warm.

And they reminded me of my mum. She, like so many others in the thick of chemo, like the statues of Koyasan, was often adorned with a beanie.

Not the pilgrimage I expected. Less grand and more confusing, but with a definite sideways glimpse of loving peace.

Sometimes writer, Sydneysider.

Sometimes writer, Sydneysider.