After more marathon walking, it was time for me to take a change of pace as I headed away from city life for a couple of days – three to be precise, where I’d chosen to go to specific places in Japan to see specific things.
First up was a night in a Buddhist temple in Koyasan. I left my big suitcase behind in Osaka (left luggage, I didn’t just leave it behind), and caught the a train to Gokurakubashi. Japanese trains are awesome. They arrive when they say the will, leave on the dot, and get you to your destination at exactly the time they say they will. I can’t understand why our trains at home can’t just run like that!
Apparently it used to take two days to get from Osaka to Mount Koya. Now thanks to trains and a cable car, it’s only two hours.
Mount Koya is one of the sacred sites in Japan. It’s the spiritual home of Shingon Buddhism, brought to Japan by one Kobo Daishi. He spent years looking for a place free from distractions to found a temple, and got the perfect spot in Mount Koya. It’s 900 metres above sea level and part of an eight part mountain range, the peaks of which resemble a lotus flower’s leaves.
Today the site is home to more than 127 temples, and the village, shops, schools and those temples are all owned by the original temple. So it’s a pretty special and historic place. In fact it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Ok enough of the history lesson! After grabbing a delicious bento box for lunch (much nicer than the ones I make at home!), and eating that on the way, I arrived at Gokurakubashi to take the cable car ride. I was part hoping (and part fearing) that it was a proper cable car. But thankfully it was more of a funicular railway.
After we arrived at the top of Mount Koya, I hopped on a bus in to the centre of the village to find my lodgings for the nigh – the Fudoin temple. It was to be my first experience of a typical Japanese inn, or ryokan. On arrival, I was greeted by a monk, and after taking my shoes off, was shown to my room.
It consisted of a table, two chairs, and a TV. Just outside was a toilet and sink. No shower! There were showers as part of the onsen, but they were only available between 4.30 and 8.30pm 🙁
The floor was made of tatami mats, again traditional, but the one thing that puzzled me was that I couldn’t see where I should sleep. Well I thought, I’d worry about that later, and headed off exploring.
I had an early start the next morning, so really had to try and get all my sightseeing done in the afternoon. The main thing I wanted to see was Okunoin, an ancient cemetery in a cedar forest. It’s home to over 200,000 gravestones and memorial pagodas.
It was breath-takingly beautiful. Serene, picturesque and just historic feeling. There were lots of signs in English at various points so you could recognise the significance of what you were looking at. There was the stone that Kobo Daishi was said to have rested on. Another stone that if it felt heavy to lift meant you were sinful. And a well where – if you couldn’t see your reflection in the bottom – you would die within three years. Would you have looked? I couldn’t resist.
After that I headed to Kobo Daishi’s Mausoleum, where it’s said he remains in eternal meditation. There’s also a lantern hall or prayer chapel where over 10,000 lanterns have been donated by Japanese people. It was stunning, but you weren’t allowed to take photos there, so I don’t have one.
I took a scenic route back in to town and stopped at a beautiful little cafe called Kasakuni Cafe. It seemed to be staffed by two really young girls, and had all kinds of delicious looking delicate pastries. On leaving I asked who made them, and the girl pointed at the other girl. I have a feeling at home they’d be made in a factory somewhere anonymous.
I headed back to the temple where I was staying, and prepared for dinner, served in a building hundreds of years old. In accordance with Buddhist teachings, the meal would be completely vegan, and was based on the concept of five flavours, five cooking methods and five colours.
This was only half of it. I’d read a review of the temple where people complained about small portions at dinner. I have to disagree! It was delicious and very filling – another memorable meal.
After dinner, I headed for the temple’s onsen or hot spring bath, then headed back to my room – where my bed had appeared. A mat on the floor with pillow and blanket. It was only eight thirty, but I felt exhausted. And I had to be up at 6.20am for prayers the next morning. I drifted off into a deep sleep.