It was around 4:30 before I decided to head back towards the temple I was staying at. The sun was setting on the other side of the mountain so darkness was coming quickly. The mild desolation that I saw earlier foreshadowed the emptiness of the streets that came at sundown. The man from earlier was no longer at the gate, the young monks in the rooms adjourning the entrance hall were gone, and the chanting no longer echoed through the temples. Since leaving Okunoin, I made my way to my room without encountering anyone.
The gong from the temple’s ceremonial hall sounded at 5:00 and a knock rapped against my door. It was another young monk who, with his limited English, informed me that, “dinner is ready; please follow me.” I asked if dinner was served elsewhere and he nodded. He led me down the stairs. To my left, I noticed that what I had thought was a celebratory hall was actually the dining hall for the monks-in-training. We veered to the right which led to rooms which were below the bedrooms. The first room once again had a pair of slippers lying before them. I was once again directed to the room next to theirs. It was slightly smaller than the room I’d be sleeping in but it only housed three small tables on the tatami. The monk guided me to sit in front of the tables while another monk came in with a tray as large as the table.
“These are all vegetarian,” the monk explains as he moves plates and covered bowls with various food items onto the table. When he finishes setting everything up, it felt like there was no more space for anything else. I say “thank you” as the monk says a short prayer, bows, and leaves before closing the door. Something is amazing to be said about eating in the centre of a room by yourself in otherwise silence.
Well, the silence was short-lived. As I start to open the various bowls on the table, I heard another monk guide another guest to the other room next to mine. “Oh wow,” the man exclaims, “this is so cool!” They lead the man to the table where he gives a short chuckle and says, “Oh my God, this is amazing!” As the sound of plates and bowls knock against the table, the man with great expression says, “this looks so good!” As he devours his first dish in front of him, the man makes ecstatic moans and repeatedly exclaims his amazement for the food. There is something also amazing to be said about hearing noises of excitement after having spent hours in silence.
After dinner is over, I head back out into the hallway where I can still hear the young monks-in-training talking in their dining hall. The couple next to me are gone while the man in the other room munches away at the divine food in front of him. Now that the sun was gone, it was easy to notice how extremely cold the hallways were. It was a controlled mad sprint to get back upstairs to my room where someone had taken the kind liberty to turn on the space heater so the room was toasty warm when I returned. They had also laid out the futon and placed a hot pad underneath the blankets so by the time I would go to sleep, the futon was also toasty warm. I had to remind myself to give this place an amazing review when I returned to the connected world.
It was mildly difficult to brave the cold hallway to head to the bath. It was an old Japanese style shower with an extremely hot bath to rest in after having washed off. The hot bath was perhaps double the size of a Western-style bath. There were two shower heads next to the bath and no lock on the bath door which meant that this was intended to be a public bath. Having done the math, I figured there must be two other guys also staying at this temple: one from the couple, and the one extremely satisfied with the food. While I’m very comfortable with my sexuality, let’s be honest and say that no one would be enjoying an extremely squishy hot water bath with three naked men packed in. I decided to keep my stay limited to when the next guy comes in to take a shower. Conveniently, either out of good luck or the other guests also doing the math, no one entered the bath for the hour I stayed there, before deciding I was outstaying my hot bath welcome.
It was maybe another hour or two after that of reviewing pictures on my camera and reading from the only novel I had brought that it was time to sleep – after all, there was the mandatory prayer session bright and early at 6AM to attend. As I turned out the light, the moonbeams pierced into the room onto the futon as the sunbeam had done only hours before. As requested by the sign on the butane heater, I turned it off before resting in the hot-pad warmed futon. This hot-pad, perhaps being of Japanese invention, had stayed warm the entire night and kept my body warm as I had slept. Unfortunately, it was my tossing and turning in the futon that had occasionally lifted up the blanket causing a sudden rush of cold air to enter the futon every so often and waking me up as though the spirits in the cemetery were trying to play tricks on me.
My cell phone alarm woke me up just 15 minutes before six in the morning and I felt mildly rested – if it weren’t for those vengeful spirits during the night. I headed down the stairs where signs pointed towards the hall of the temple where the morning prayer was to take place. The couple from the room next door was already there and shortly after, the man in the room next to mine also takes a seat next to me. Already, a young monk was reading from a scroll in a solemn chant-like voice in front of an adorned altar and a statue of Buddha. Sitting next to him was an older monk who was bowing with his eyes closed, occasionally hitting the small gong next to him. They were both facing away from us but the voice of the young monk was echoing around the room so it sounded like he was practically next to us.
The initial 10 or so minutes of the prayer went probably like any ignorant person would feel if they had to wake up extremely early to attend a morning prayer session. But then the sun started to come up over the mountain and sunbeams scattered into the hall. The sound of chirping and the noise of tree branches swaying in the wind crept into the prayer hall. Through it all, the chanting of the young monk only seemed to get more accentuated and rhythmic, almost melodic. But nothing really changed – he was vocalizing the same way as he had done all this time. He was chanting in Japanese but perhaps it was yet another transcendental moment that was able to cross the language barrier.
After an hour, there was a moment of silence and the monks left the hall. We followed suit where we were guided to breakfast in the same rooms as the dinner before. It was yet another vegetarian meal, prepared and cooked in such a way that made me wonder why I had never thought of trying this myself . At least I believe that the man in the room next to me agreed with this, considering he had exclaimed “this is so good” three or four times by the time I had finished breakfast . Perhaps I had yet another transcendental moment, or more likely I ate breakfast very slowly, as the couple next to me had already checked out of the temple.
It was my turn to do so as well. Grabbing my bags and putting on my Canada Goose parka, I made my way down to the main entrance hall. I passed the man from the room next to me as he was returning from the breakfast hall. In the first moment of talking since arriving, I said, “how was the food?”
Two thumbs up behind me, I arrived at the entrance hall where the same young monk who registered me was waiting with my shoes. I exchanged his key for my shoes and said: “thank you.” He responded with a short bow. I walked out back on to the Koya-san main street. Blue sky, cool winds, radiant warmth – and the silence that I was now accustomed to.
Three hours later, I had returned to the bustling and crowded Osaka-Namba station, the quiet serenity now seemingly a fable of the journey I was taking through Japan.
 It’s because I like steak too much for me to ever become a hardcore vegetarian. Chicken, I can skip. Pork, I eat in limited quantities already as it is. But beef? No way!
 I mean, I hope it was breakfast he was exclaiming amazement at. Otherwise, I feel like I was extremely short-changed at this temple. (Kidding, of course).