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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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1,200 Years of Worship

May 15, 2015

Monks, pilgrims and tourists have been flocking to a remote mountain in western Japan to celebrate a big anniversary. It’s 1,200 years since a monk settled on Koyasan and founded a major school of Buddhism there. The mountain has always been a popular destination. In the past, UNESCO gave it World Heritage Status, and Michelin made it a 3-star attraction. But in this landmark year, people are turning up in record numbers. NHK World’s Kimberly Gale reports.

In the heart of Koyasan, on the night of the celebration you can practically hear that heart beating. This is the central temple complex, the Danjo Garan. It was built in the 9th century by the monk Kobo Daishi, as the center of worship for a sect of Buddhism called Shingon.

Kimberly Gale at Koyasan

From there you can see a pagoda called Konpon Daito, an important symbol of Shingon Buddhism. On the night of the celebration, it’s the stage for something more modern.

Projection mapping, light patterns projected onto the pagoda to transform its appearance and to tell a story. It’s set to the sound of traditional shomyo chanting by Buddhist priests and Japanese drums, or taiko. So the fusion of pictures and sounds helps symbolize this community 1200 years on.

Despite how difficult the temple is to get to, a great many people made the trip, and I had the chance to find out what’s drawing them.

Monks performing a chant by lantern light.

It’s a ritual that’s been carried out in Koyasan for centuries. Monks gather by the light of temple lanterns to recite sutras and chant mantras. It’s how Swiss-born monk Kurt Kubli Genso spends part of his day. He’s also an ambassador for the town where Buddhist tradition lives on. So for the past few weeks, he’s been busier than usual welcoming an influx of people celebrating Koyasan’s 1200th anniversary. Genso says people visit because they want to have a spiritual adventure.

Monks and pilgrims are honoring revered monk Kukai, called Kobo Daishi after his death. He founded Koyasan and a sect of Buddhism known as Shingon.

The area houses the headquarters of the sect and is considered one of the most sacred places in Japan. During this 50-day-celebration, people can catch a glimpse of rarely-seen relics. Crowds snake through a temple to see a statue of a healing Buddha that’s been kept hidden since it was made in 1932.

Foreign tourists have always visited Koyasan, drawn to the dozens of monasteries tucked inside dense cedar forests. More started visiting after 2004, when UNESCO recognized the area as a World Heritage site. The town has been adapting to welcome even more. There’s a slick website in various languages, English signs, and WiFi. The number of foreign tourists has risen five-fold to nearly 55,000 annually over the past decade.

Tourists say it’s a magical place that offers a beautiful and relaxing experience. They come to mingle with the monks, and do what they do: sleep inside temple lodgings, or shukubo, eat traditional fare-- strictly vegetarian meals called shojin ryori, take time to focus by practicing meditation-- guided by a master, and participate in fire ceremonies held each morning in every shukubo for morning prayers.

This place really engages the senses, from the smell of the temple incense to the sound of the monks’ chanting to the mountain air. Kurt Kubli Genso says welcoming the world with those experiences helps preserve the sanctity of Koyasan.

Kurt Genso joins Kimberly Gale to share his insights.

Gale: We’ve seen a lot of anniversary events this week. Some are modern, some are traditional. What are your thoughts on them?

Genso: They’re excellent. They bring thousands of guests to Koyasan, who visit ceremonies in the Okunoin and also in the Danjo Garan, in the Golden Hall. I think about 5,000 monks are engaged to perform daily ceremonies in Koyasan. Also the temples are filled with many guests. They’re mostly fully booked, with people enjoying life in the shukubo.

Gale: Any visitor who comes here doesn’t really have a regular tourist experience. It’s a very unique experience. What are you hoping people take away with them when they leave?

Genso: Many people come to Koyasan, mostly followers or pilgrims. It’s a place for pilgrims. But tourists also come to Koyasan, and when they come to Koyasan, they will return as pilgrims. Koyasan touches your heart, purifies your heart, and you go with a different mind back into your daily life.