Where si­lence is golden

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - KAREN WHITELAW

NEW­CAS­TLE, NSW A MONK ban­ishes our shoes into the cold night on our ar­rival at Ichi­join Tem­ple on Mount Koya. Hepu­ri­fies us with a pinch of orange pow­der on our palms.

All the monk’s move­ments are con­sid­ered and rev­er­en­tial — his wel­com­ing bow, his head in­clined as he lis­tens, hold­ing back his long, wide sleeves when they get in the way. He hands us ill-fit­ting brown slip­pers and we shuf­fle along the open veranda be­hind him, peek­ing into rooms with tatami floors and richly painted screens of cherry blos­soms. Pil­grims in white tu­nics over­take us, wear­ing sim­i­lar slip­pers but with­out dif­fi­culty.

My hus­band and I have come up the moun­tain by cable car to ex­pe­ri­ence monas­tic life. Es­tab­lished in 816, the town of Koy­asan is the spir­i­tual cen­tre for Shin­gon Bud­dhism. Our tatami-mat­ted room is bare but for two leg­less chairs and a cof­fee ta­ble. Din­ner ar­rives at 5.30pm in lit­tle dishes on lac­quered trays. Sho­jin ry­ori cui­sine is ve­gan: rice, soup, tofu, veg­eta­bles and sea­weed. Sim­ple, de­li­cious, un­recog­nis­able. There’s some­thing that re­sem­bles curled green mil­li­pedes, tastes like broccolini, but crunches like fine bones. We feel guilty as we buy beer from the down­stairs vend­ing ma­chine.

The chang­ing room in the women’s bath­house is empty. I un­dress and cover my­self with an in­sub­stan­tial hand towel. In the bathing area, two women cov­ered in soap­suds sit in open stalls along the wall. I teeter on a stool built for pe­tite bot­toms and copy ev­ery­thing they do. When I sink into the bath, wa­ter sloshes over the edge but nei­ther woman blinks. I wal­low un­til my skin turns red. Back in our room the monks have laid down thin fu­tons for the night. The si­lence is so­porific.

At 6am the chapel shiv­ers in a golden fog of in­cense and the hum of orange-robed monks chant­ing su­tras. The pil­grims sit in front of the al­tar, legs folded, whis­per­ing the words. It’s like med­i­ta­tion, ex­cept for two fid­get­ing Western­ers with pins and nee­dles and aching bones. Af­ter break­fast we meet a monk who has stud­ied in Can­berra. ‘‘I hope we haven’t in­ad­ver­tently of­fended any­one,’’ I say. ‘‘We un­der­stand Aus­tralians are easy­go­ing,’’ he replies. ‘‘We ac­cept them as they are.’’ He smiles and I recog­nise the same kind ac­cep­tance we’ve re­ceived from ev­ery­one we’ve met here. Send your 400-word con­tri­bu­tion to Fol­low the Reader: travel@ theaus­tralian.com.au. Colum­nists re­ceive a Kathmandu Travel Se­cu­rity ID kit with a brightly coloured lug­gage strap, tough ABS lug­gage tag, se­ty­our-own com­bi­na­tion lock, money neck pouch and car­ry­bag ($79.98). More: 1800 333 484; kathmandu.com.au.

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