Wakayama: Working on sacred ground may bring healing

Courtesy of Koya Town
Visitors try sutra sermon copying at a lodging house during a trial session in November 2020 in Koya, Wakayama Prefecture.

KOYA, Wakayama — A new project will be launched in the upcoming fiscal year that would allow visitors to have religious experiences, such as meditation, while working on the sacred Koyasan grounds in Wakayama Prefecture.

Koyasan is a mountainous Buddhist-run location about 850 meters above sea level. The complex has expanded to comprise 117 temples, including the renowned Kongobuji temple.

It was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2004, dubbed “the Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range” along with Kumano Kodo route.

The local Koya town government came up with the idea by using the concept of a “workcation,” a portmanteau of “work” and “vacation,” coined to describe working from somewhere that allows employees to also enjoy some leisure activities.

Aiming to have people work while feeling the healing power of religion, the locals call the project “wortation,” a combination of “work” and “meditation.” The municipality is expecting to have companies set up satellite offices in this sacred area that will even urge some workers to relocate to the town in the future.

Sutra copying in evening

The Yomiuri Shimbun

The Koyasan forest park administration building, located between 1 and 2 kilometers from the center of Koyasan, will be the workplace for the project, according to the concept. The building sits among lush trees, flowery gardens and streams.

“The surrounding area is a wilderness. It’s a great stress-free place to work,” said a town official.

The work area is in a building that features a 45-square-meter room that can accommodate about 20 people, with a large table, monitor, kitchen and, of course, Wi-Fi.

The town government has planned a renovation project to add several more small rooms.

Users will stay in the temple’s lodgings. In the evening they will experience sutra sermon copying and enjoy temple cuisine with vegetables and tofu.

Early in the morning, they will participate in a gongyo ceremony, in which they listen to a monk recite sutras, and then head over to work in the building via a walk along a mountain path that winds its way through natural surroundings.

The price to rent the workroom is expected to be about ¥5,000 per day. Officials first aim to attract corporate training programs during the next fiscal year. They said they have begun to promote the benefits of working in Koyasan to companies, and have received a number of inquiries.

New support for local tourism

Shukubo, the lodging facilities for worshippers, have fallen on hard times in Koyasan because of the coronavirus crisis, and the downturn was the impetus for the project.

The lodgings have been the backbone of the town’s tourism industry, but in recent years the facilities have become increasingly dependent on foreign visitors.

According to the Wakayama prefectural government, the number of overseas visitors staying at lodgings has increased more than tenfold, from 7,504 in 2001 to 108,993 in 2019.

However, because of the spread of the novel coronavirus, foreign tourists stopped coming to Japan, and the number of visitors to the lodgings drastically fell off.

The town hopes this project will carve out a new path toward generating new customers. The town held a two-day trial of the project at a lodging house in November last year with 15 participants, including prefectural employees and company workers from inside and outside the prefecture.

“Experiencing religion and walking along the mountain path helped me relax and concentrate,” said a 46-year-old male employee of NTT West’s Wakayama Branch. “I think it will lead to a more balanced way of working.”

Mayor Yoshiya Hirano also has high hopes for the project.

“I’m sure many people will be attracted by idea of working here and having the ‘unusual’ experience of hearing temple bells ringing in the morning or seeing monks walking through the streets,” Hirano said.

A map of Koyasan temple area