Japan’s Koyasan, Now and as Eliza Scidmore Saw It a Century Ago

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

The New York Times ran an article in its travel section on Oct. 22 on Koyasan, a mountainous temple region in southeastern Japan that’s a major pilgrimage site for Buddhists. Eliza Scidmore wrote about it in 1907 for National Geographic Magazine.

It’s interesting to see the different takes on the same place a century apart.

The site was selected 1,200 years ago by the monk Kobo-Daishi to serve as the center of an esoteric Shingon sect of Buddhism. There are various ways to follow the teachings of the Buddha to achieve the elevated state in which humanity is freed of suffering and its endless repetition due to rebirth. The Shingon practice emphasizes daily ritual as a means of reaching that enlightenment.

In her article, Eliza Scidmore focused heavily on Kobo-Daishi and the site’s importance. She leavened her description of the monk with the note of irreverence she brought to 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 site with pilgrims. About 100,000 people visited Koyasan each year. Many carried with them the ashes of loved ones, Scidmore wrote, out of a belief 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)

Eliza 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, Eliza 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.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Eliza Scidmore, Historical Travel, Japan

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *