Japan’s Koyasan, a Century After Eliza Scidmore Saw It

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

Koyasan, a mountainous area of temples in southeastern Japan, is a major pilgrimage site for Buddhists. The New York Times ran an article about it in the Oct. 22 travel section. Eliza Scidmore wrote about the site in 1907 for National Geographic Magazine. 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 supports various paths by which someone can reach the elevated state of being freed from suffering and its repetition through continuous rebirth. The Shingon sect emphasizes the practice of daily ritual as a means to reach that enlightenment.

In her article, Eliza Scidmore wrote, with the note of irreverence she includes in many of her travel writings:

“One meets memorials and traditions of Kobo Daishi in every part of Japan, but at Koyasan he is naturally all-pervading and extreme. 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.”

Kobo-Daishi was buried at Koyasan, making it 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.” It was a learned reference to a poem of Norse mythology in which elite warriors who died in battle were selected by the god Odin to reside with him in a great hall, waited on by the beautiful Valkyries. An underworld of the valorous, as it were.

Okunoin cemetery at Koyasan (Source: Wikipedia)

Every great family in Japan had a monument or cluster of tombs at Koyasan, Scidmore wrote. There were thousands of mortuary tablets in the temples. 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 in my research, I was struck by how solipsistic — and shallow — the Times’s article on Koyasan was.

The author described it as a place of pilgrimage, but offered little historical or cultural insight. 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 at the level of 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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Filed under Eliza Scidmore, Historical Travel, Japan

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