CHAPTER 18: Goddess of All that Flows

Bentendake (Mt. Benten): July 3, 2018

This photo supplement tracks the events in Chapter 18 of CLIMB: Leaving Safe and Finding Strength on 100 Summits in Japan. The captions offer “extra features” that didn’t make it into the book.

Bentendake, one of the peaks surrounding the mountaintop plateau of Kōyasan, is an interesting example of the syncretism that often characterizes ancient Japanese holy sites. Although Kōyasan itself is the center of Shingon Buddhism in Japan, Benten (also known as Benzaiten in Japan) is the Japanese name for the Hindu goddess Sarasvati, who is also sometimes worshipped as a Shintō deity–the goddess of everything that flows.

Kōbō Daishi (774-835 – also known as Kūkai), the priest who brought Shingon Buddhism to Japan, sought the goddess’ protection for Kōyasan shortly after establishing his center for Shingon worship and study on the sacred mountaintop plateau in the early ninth century. In fact, Kōbō Daishi himself established the shrine on top of Bentendake. Although the site is small, the relationship between Benten/Benzaiten and Kōyasan continues to this day.

Monuments, and a statue of Kannon (the Buddhist avatar of mercy) at Okunoin

The sacred Kōyasan plateau is home to Japan’s largest cemetery, Ōkunoin – which measures more than 1.5 kilometers in length and is home to more than 250,000 graves and memorial monuments.

Graves at Okunoin

While many of the monuments at Ōkunoin mark the resting place of a single person (Japan practices cremation, so the remains interred here are ashes), others represent entire groups (Panasonic has a group monument for its workers, as do several other major companies)–as Shingon Buddhists believe there is special merit gained from being interred at Kōyasan, either personally or “by association” through a group monument.

Cedar lined path, Koyasan Okunoin

Some of the towering cedars at Okunoin are more than 1,000 years old. Many of the trees are numbered, and all of them are cared for by the Shingon temples of Kōyasan, some of which have also been active centers of Buddhist study and worship on this mountaintop for more than a thousand years.

Guest room: Ekoin

Ekoin was established over 1,100 years ago. This Shingon temple sits less than 100 meters from Ichi-no-hashi (the First Bridge), the official entrance to Okunoin. It remains a functioning Buddhist temple to this day, and conducts two morning services: a Buddhist chanting service and the traditional goma, or fire ceremony, which is sacred to Shingon practice.

Goma ceremony, Ekoin

During the goma, a priest recites a sacred chant, accompanied by a drum, while lighting and praying over a sacred flame. The flame is fed with special sticks, upon which worshippers (and secular visitors to Koyasan) have written prayers. It is believed that the fire transforms the prayers to smoke and lifts them to heaven*, where they can be granted.

(*The Shingon concept is more akin to “ethereal, non-corporeal plane” than the Christian “heaven,” but there is no good viable English analogue/term.)

The last surviving nyonindo on Koyasan

The trailhead for the hike to Bentendake begins across the street from the nyonindo (women’s hall), one of seven such halls that once provided shelter for the female pilgrims who used the various trails to climb the sacred mountain. Women were not allowed to enter the sacred mountaintop plateau until the 19th century, due to strict Shingon rules about worship and practice, so the nyonindo once marked an important barrier, beyond which women could not cross.

A pilgrim trail, known as the nyonin-michi, encircles the outer perimeter of the plateau; before women could enter the sacred precincts, they circumambulated the sacred mountaintop on this trail (which also connected all of the nyonindo).

The Bentendake/Nyoninmichi Trailhead

The trail to the summit of Bentendake also follows the route of the nyonin-michi–which also passes up and over the mountain’s summit. The cement reinforcement is modern, but the trail itself dates to the ninth century. Although called the “women’s trail,” the nyonin-michi was used by pilgrims of both genders, as well as secular travelers, who sometimes used the trail to cross over the sacred mountain en route to towns and villages on the other side.

One of the wider sections of the trail

The trail up Bentendake, while reasonably safe and a simple climb, follows the edge of the mountain, with a steep drop-off on the downhill side. It’s not a challenging hike in modern shoes, but the thought of hiking this in hand-woven sandals, in the winter (when the trail would be hidden beneath 10-15 cm. of snow, and the edge obscured) made me admire the fortitude of the many pilgrims who hiked this route as an expression of faith.

The sacred pagoda at Danjo Garan, from the nyonin-michi

During the first few centuries after Kōyasan’s founding, many Shingon priests dedicated their lives to esoteric Buddhist studies; some of them never left the holy mountaintop again, after taking their vows. The history of Kōyasan mentions women circumambulating the sacred plateau, stopping to listen for the bells or peering through the trees in the hope of catching a glimpse of a husband, son, or father far below. The trees have grown substantially, and block most of the view today, but in some places, it’s still possible to see what those women saw so long ago.

Upward through a gully

The photo above shows the start of the “gully” portion of the hike. The sides grew higher and steeper as the trail progressed. Again, not technically difficult, but potentially dangerous in a downpour . . . and thunder was rumbling overhead as I made the climb.

The final push to the summit of Bentendake

All too often, when climbing mountains, what looks like “the top” from the trail turns out to be one of many false summits–a fact you discover only after you crest what you hoped against hope was the final rise. Fortunately, I knew from the first glimpse that I’d truly reached the summit of Bentendake–the torii told me so.

Summit shrine, Bentendake

The summit of Bentendake is a Shintō holy site, even though Kōyasan is a Buddhist holy mountain. This syncretism is very normal in Japan, and although many of the dual Buddhist/Shinto holy sites were separated (and the religious symbols of one or the other of the faiths removed) during the Meiji Era (1868-1912), following an edict by the Meiji Emperor, some dual sites remain, including this one on Kōyasan.

Torii on the descent from Bentendake

Torii line the trail all the way down the far side of Bentendake, until the path emerges at the foot of the massive Daimon (Great Gate) at the entrance to Danjo Garan, the largest temple complex on Kōyasan.

Daimon (Great Gate), Danjo Garan, Kōyasan

The day I visited, dark clouds were gathering overhead and periodic rumbles of thunder echoed through the sky. The picture above does a poor job of conveying that, in large part because I had to adjust the exposure level so the gate would appear distinct.

Daimon, Danjo Garan, Kōyasan

This second photo of the Daimon was taken in September 2018, when I returned to Kōyasan for another climb. As you can see, the weather was much better on that trip. This photo was taken from a different portion of the nyonin-michi – and has the advantage of including human beings, which helps to convey the Daimon’s massive scale.

Dinner at Ekoin, Tray 1

Like most shukubo (Buddhist temple lodgings), Ekoin prepares and serves meals in the traditional shojin ryori style. This is a typical summer dinner at Ekoin, which is customarily served in the guest room and delivered by the temple’s resident priests (who also happily explain each dish for guests who are unfamiliar with this cuisine). Clockwise from top left, above: gomadofu (tofu made with sesame seeds instead of soy) with radish and wasabi; pickled mountain vegetables with soy sauce and sesame seeds; vegetable tempura; vegetable broth with a curl of yuba (tofu skin – the skimmings from the top of boiling soy milk); roasted eggplant with miso glaze; tsukemono – pickled daikon and mountain vegetable. Not pictured: rice and roasted green tea.

Dinner at Ekoin, tray 2

And the second tray. Clockwise from upper left: chilled vegetable soba (noodles) with mushrooms (note the ice cubes: they’re not fooling around when they say “chilled” – also, Kōyasan is hot and humid in the summer, and these noodles are a delicious, refreshing dish); cantaloupe and orange slices (fruit is the traditional dessert here); steamed vegetables with freeze-dried tofu (called Kōyadofu, because it was invented here); “sashimi” of konjac, yuba, and taro.

This was my fourth night of shojin ryori in a row, but even after eating Buddhist vegetarian meals in three different prefectures, I could have happily eaten many more. These meals are filling, and include a wide variety of delicious tastes and textures–if you’ve never tried it, and you come to Japan, a shojin ryori experience in a shukubo should definitely be on your list.

As it happened, my list after leaving Kōyasan did not include any more Buddhist meals for quite some time . . . but it did include an unexpected experience with two of Japan’s most famous treats, which feature in Chapter 19: Even Ants Like Kakigori. Click through to find out more!

* This page is part of the photo companion to CLIMB: Leaving Safe & Finding Strength on 100 Summits in Japan. You can find the story behind these pictures (in hardback and ebook formats, and either in person or online) at your favorite local bookstore or at Amazon or Barnes & Noble (both in the U.S. and internationally).