Where silence is golden
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.