Koyasan - 2 days with the monks in the mountains

Trip Start Jan 01, 2008
Trip End Dec 29, 2008

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Is this possible? Clive, living the life of a monk for two days! (and turning vegetarian!). 

We reluctantly leave Kyoto for Koyasan in Wakayama prefecture by train, our most complex journey so far.  We get the bus to Kyoto station, the  Super-Express to Wakayama and then a local train to Hashimoto.  From Hashimoto we get another local train to Gorigushi and from there very steep trip  on a funicular railway to Koyasan station and a bus into town.  Amazingly we get there without getting lost, and on time!  The final stages of the train journey were spectacular as the train wound its way through the mountains travelling up incredibly steep slopes and winding through lots of really sharp bends.  We have never been on a train that goes around so many sharp bends and up such a steep track (beats Birmingham to London any day).  The views are spectacular!

Koyasan is a complex of 117 temples set in a mountain tableland which is surrounded by eight mountain peaks. It is the primary centre for Shingon Buddhism.  living in the town  are 5000 people, 1000 of whom are monks!  We are staying at Eko-in, a temple which takes guests and is run by a group of friendly young monks. In addition to seeing the sights we are also required to attend the morning services - at 6.30am each day!  The first service of each day consists of 30 minutes of chanting in perfect harmony (he monks, not us!) and is incredibly soothing,  This is followed by walking to another small shrine for the  fire ceremony which basically consist of one monk building a fire of 108 sticks of wood (apparently representing the 108 mortal sins) and then setting fire to them thus absolving everyone of their sins. (N.B.We are still trying to work out what the other 39 sins are!).  All  of this was accompanied by the sound of another monk beating the ceremonial drum (Clive reckoned he could give Ginger Baker a run for his money!).  The resulting fire is a welcome 30 minutes of warmth as it is freezing up here in the mountains. Then its back to our room for our (veggie) breakfast.

The food here is shojin-ryori, or gourmet vegetarian and is both great to look at and delicious to eat. The food is served in our room on beautiful red lacquer trays and consist of about 10 different small dishes.  No garlic or onions are allowed.  I am amazed that Clive can last even two days without meat of some description, but he says he could turn vegetarian if all veggie food was like this.  Yeah right!!! Maybe it is the Sake talking?

After, dinner the monks clear dinner and make up our futons.  Seems a bit strange having all these holy men doing all the housework.

On the evening of our arrival in Koyasan we take a walk through Okonoin the largest Buddhist graveyard in Japan which winds for 2 km through a wood of really massive 50m high cedar trees, some of which are 700 years old.  There are lanterns all along the way and it is really, really spooky in the dark.
The next day we use a guide from the free English speaking guide service (5,000 yen "donation").  A wonderful lady by the name of Mitsuki showed us around the town and we spent the  day learning all about the temples of Koyasan and how the place came to be founded some 800 years ago.
You will hopefully see from the photos how wonderful the temples are. The highlight was Goyan, the main temple which also has what is apparently the largest rock garden in Japan.

It is in Eko-in  that we have our first experience of an Onsen, a Japanese communal bath.  There is a very precise order you must follow to bathe. First remove all clothes, shower and rinse off all traces of soap.  Then pick up a very small towel andget into the very hot bath.  The towel goes on the head whilst in the bath and is apparently supposed to be used to cover your bits when getting in and out (although there wasn't much evidence of that!).  After a soak in the bath you then dry off using a number of those incredibly small towel.  Afterward we felt fantastic, if very red-faced!  As this place is some 1000m up in the mountains, it is a lot colder than Kyoto, particularly at night so the hot baths are a really welcome respite

If cleanliness really is next to godliness, then the Japanese really do have it sorted! This is the most tranquil and relaxing place we have visited on our travels and is a must see on any visit to Japan if only just to chill out for a day or two.

When we leave Eko-in and are waiting at the bus stop to get the bus to the cable car, Mitsuki, our guide from the day before stops in her car and rushes over to us.  Apparently, Clive had overpaid the donation by 4000 yen by mistaking a 5000 yen note for a 1000 note! Not great for someone who has spent his life in the Financial services industry!!  But this really sums up our experience of the Japanese people, so nice, friendly and totally honest. If only the rest of teh world were like this.
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