Explaining the essentials of Buddhist teachings to tourists in English would seem to be a new calling for monks at a famous pilgrimage center in western Japan.
One of those rising to the challenge is Nobuhiro Tamura. He is among the monks who attend the burgeoning number of foreign visitors to Mt. Koya, a World Heritage Site with a history of over 1,200 years, where he leads them on night treks through a sacred forest and offers meditation classes in English.
One of the main attractions for the visitors are overnight stays at "shukubo," temple lodgings originally built for monks and worshippers at the Japanese headquarters of the Shingon sect of esoteric Buddhism founded by monk Kukai.
Not all monks appreciate the influx of foreign visitors, citing language difficulties, while others who are more welcoming feel the need to spell out the dos and don'ts of temple life to their guests.
Tamura, who works at Ekoin temple in the central area of the mountain, saw the need to enlighten visitors in English after seeing a surge in foreign guests. Mt. Koya, along with other temples and pilgrimage routes of the Kii mountain range in western Japan, was listed as a World Heritage Site in 2004.
"There was a sharp increase in the number of foreign visitors. Those I talked to were looking forward to stepping into Buddhist culture and tradition," he said in a recent interview.
Tamura, who studied at a language school in Britain, started producing English translations of meditation programs held daily at the temple's shukubo. Sitting in front of foreign lodgers, he teaches them how to calm their minds and breathe rhythmically.
The secluded temple complex on Mt. Koya in Wakayama Prefecture was established by Kukai, who is also known as Kobo Daishi. It forms the start and end point of the Shikoku Pilgrimage -- a multi-site pilgrimage of 88 temples associated with the famous monk.
Mt. Koya, known in Japanese as Koya-san, was given three stars in 2009 by the Michelin Green Guide, which evaluates tourist sites. The National Geographic Traveler also selected it in its list of 20 destinations to visit in 2015-- the only destination chosen from Japan.
The number of foreign visitors to Mt. Koya's 52 temples that accept lodgers has nearly tripled in the three years since 2013, according to the Koyasan Shukubo Association, which offers suggestions to visitors on where to stay.
Some temples, however, find it difficult to accept visitors from overseas due to the language barrier, leading them to think that they cannot meet the requests by the lodgers, said the association.
But with increasing media exposure and recommendations on social media, the tourist rush isn't going to die down any time soon.
Including Tamura, Ekoin has three monks who speak English. In addition, the temple has placed an English booklet in each room explaining temple etiquette as well as the history and teachings of the faith.
"There were times when foreign visitors walked inside the temple with their shoes on, not knowing it's against Japanese custom," says Tamura. "But after we made the booklet, we haven't had these problems."
At night, he often leads a tour to the Okuno-in, the site of the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi. Some 200,000 tombstones line the trail to his resting place, where followers of the faith believe the sage continues his meditations to this day.
"Do you know Kobo Daishi? He is a Japanese monk and the founder of (this school of) Buddhism. We believe that he is not dead and he is still there in eternal meditation, as he has been for more than a thousand years. We're going to see him tonight," Tamura says as he leads dozens of people along the trail.
He makes several stops en route to explain various Buddhist precepts and to answer questions.
When the group arrives at the mausoleum, Tamura asks the hikers to close their eyes and come up with one wish, while he chants a Buddhist sutra.
"Many people (from abroad) ask me about my life as a monk because they have never spoken to one before." The questions range from how to become a monk, to whether monks can get married.
"I am grateful that people are interested, and it is my job to answer their questions," Tamura says. "I always try to explain to foreign visitors as thoroughly as possible so they can gain an understanding of and a familiarity with Buddhist teachings, here on Mt. Koya."
Alison Weber, a 54-year-old visitor from Melbourne, Australia, travels to Mt. Koya several times a year as part of a group walk she organizes.
"Koyasan is not just a tourist attraction -- we can experience many things here like meditation and the morning services. Nobu (Tamura) explains everything well and it's easy to understand," Weber said.
2017.05.26 | Wakayama