Emma Koehn writes: A young monk pads barefoot across the icy foyer, wearing a Foo Fighters tour t-shirt and faded designer jeans, searching for his shoes.

He pauses as I stumble, trying to tie my Converse with frozen fingers. I am a white beacon of clumsiness within this temple compound. Having gained his attention, I blush, mumble an incoherent “Ohiogazaimasu” (Good morning), and stare blankly at his shirt. He slips on a pair of outdoor shoes, lithely exits into the snow and points the way to the temple at which morning prayer will be held.

I am left on the decking with frost melting through my sock as I wonder if monks can listen to rock music too.

This image of monkhood is a little difficult to reconcile, having been promised an absence of pop cultural fare in Koya-san in Wakayama prefecture. It is here that young men and women of Japanleave their Nikes at the temple door and begin an existence among hundreds of temples; studying with the goal of becoming monks and nuns.

The aim is complete seclusion from the never ending parade of fluorescent Mohawks and Barney’s shopping bags which dominate the city hubs of Japan.

My brother has just spent the past half hour pouting around bites of a vegan breakfast: an oozing tofu block resembling a starfish, along with some pickled vegies, which I agree is an acquired taste.  It’s only just past 5.30am and I’ve already hit my head rather unceremoniously on several pine door frames as our hosts glide from room to room.

It’s an understatement to say that my knowledge of Buddhism is slim, and this fact is generally a cultural complication when residing in a monastery, as we are. Nobody seems to consider this a concern, though.

The compound’s religious students instead slip orange robes over their slogan covered T-shirts and usher us into a temple each morning at 6am.

The Foo Fighter monk, now changed into the standard uniform, leads the service this morning. He begins with thirty minutes of meditations which buzz across the frozen wooden floor.

It is easy to get drawn off into the rhythm, but before I know it, the chanting ends; and I awkwardly unfold myself from the pretzel shape that I have assumed. In the process I get hopelessly tangled in my coat and am the last one out the door. Nobody blinks. It is time for a morning walk to the mausoleum of Daishi, the founder of the faith.

Daishi’s resting place is amongst soft moss and half melted snow in the centre of the uncontained graveyard, Okuno-in. In wobbly timber sandals, the religious charges stride to a beat into the heart of the cemetery, wood smacking against stone with vicious determination.

The path widens a couple of kilometres in, opening onto a temple and the mausoleum of Daishi. The collection of monks before us line up and begin chanting with impeccable synchronisation. Each face wears a curious expression, of which I hopelessly try to mimic. It’s a look that swirls complete devotion with nonchalance in a way that only the most practiced can muster.

Unsurprisingly, it’s a feat I can’t quite grasp, and instead receive stifled smiles from the more educated monks before me.

The rest of a typical day on Mount Koya involves visiting some of the more notable temples in a district on the other side of the community. The catch is that we are required to do so without a chaperon. In truth, my sloppy Japanese is more hazardous than helpful, but compensation for this fact lies under the colourful wooden structures and huge golden Buddhas that monks in training graciously trust us to explore.

As we trek between temples, I see sly pieces of material culture below have snuck into the mountains almost undetected. With each one I am jolted from meditation, but also inexplicably comforted by the shards of tacky celebrity that are somehow relevant even in this community of purification.

A beaten up vending machine stands at the station, holding soft drinks and manga and almost cowering in knowledge of its hypocrisy as curious individuals pass by. The vegetarian restaurant at which we rest for lunch has the odd paparazzi magazine adorning tables, spruiking Tokyo hairstyling, boy bands and even Brangelina.

By the time evening sketches itself against the and hail sets in, I’m settled beside a kerosene heater on tatami matting, watching Japan MTV on the innocuous screen supplied in my guest room at the monastery.

Drifting towards sleep, I think about rock music, meditation and my 5.30am wake up call. Bleached blonde Japanese imitations of Westlife light up the television, engaging in horrible group choreography. Meanwhile, the monks of our station hold a pose in the snow outside, ready for the final service of the day.

Amidst the focused chants outside and the choreographed talent show blaring from the TV, I have to wonder whether living a life of material exclusion here is even possible when cable programming taunts from mere metres away.

This concern might exist within Koya-san’s boundaries. If it does, though, the worry is held close to residents’ chests. For now, the evening bells and chanting begin as low hum through the wooden walls, and the residents of the monastery begin preparations for another day.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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