Temple City

Trip Start Aug 09, 2008
Trip End Aug 2009

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Flag of Japan  , Kinki,
Wednesday, November 12, 2008

And now for Koyasan - excuse this rambling blog - some of the detail is more for us as a journal of our trip.

Koyasan or Mount Koya is located about 1000m above sea level and is surrounded by mountain peaks on all sides. Itīs one of those rare places where you can stay in a temple and meditate in the morning to the chants of the monks, which is what drew us to this place.

Trying to figure out how to get here was a challenge. We bought a 7 day JR Rail pass, which allows for travel on the Shinkansen (the bullet train) - an amazing way to travel in Japan - fast and very efficient. So,in trying to figure out our Koyasan route, we ended up speaking to about 4-5 different JR Rail offices within their Tokyo station - partly because of the language barrier and also it sounded really complicated - 5 different trains, a cable car ride and 5.5 hours travel time, keeping in mind that 3 hours of travel is on the Shinkansen (which can travel up to 300 km/hr) - so a fair distance. After we got all the information, Rajiv and I debated a little whether it was going to be worth the effort and hassle and then decided what the heck - it will be an adventure.

So, our route was Tokyo - Shin Osaka - Osaka - Shinimamiya - Hashimato - Gokurakubashi and then a 5 minute cable car ride up the mountain to Koyasan. Most of the connection times were between 5 - 10 minutes, so not a whole of time in figuring out gates and where to go. On top of that, we did not have reservations at the Shukubo (temple) which is highly recommended. The tourist office in Koyasan closes at 5:00pm and they are the only ones who can help us with our reservations in English so we were chancing things a little and hoped that by leaving at 8:00am we had some extra time for mishaps or missed connections.

But it all worked out well. The first train arrived about 15 minutes early and that allowed for some breathing room for the subsequent rides. The last leg of the train ride which was about an hour was beautiful as it slowly chugged its way up the mountain, past lush green fields and vegetable gardens that looked like they were ready for harvest. We had bought boxed lunches for the final leg of the journey, something many train travellers do, but since we were on a basic commuter train there was no place to eat.

The cable car ride was fairly steep. We finally made it up the mountain, took a bus into town and after speaking to about 3-4 different people, eventually found the tourist office. A young tourist we spoke to recommended the Ekoin Shukubo, so that is where we ended up staying for2 nights.

When we arrived at the temple, one of the monks gave us a quick tour of the necessities - showers/public baths (communal showers, separate for men and women), toilets, breakfast and dinner times (all brought to our room), meditation at 6:30am.

Our room was somewhat sparse but beautiful, overlooking a Japanese garden. It also had a tv and phone for internal Shukubo use only, and a gas heater - all not very temple like. The meals were all vegetarian, described as gourmet and the secret recipes are said to have passed from chef to chef, monk to monk!

Having done Vipassana meditation which has been described as the boot camp of Buddhist meditation, this experience almost feels to be at the other extreme with all the creature comforts and on top of that they also make their own sake which you can purchase with dinner. Services such as picking up bedding and waiting on guests is done by young men training to be Buddhist priest.

In the morning at 6:30am, we were escorted by a monk to the prayer room where we joined 3 other monks and other guests for morning prayers. The session lasted for about 30 minutes and that was followed by a fire ceremony in another building on the temple grounds. The ceremonies were quite beautiful although we didnīt understand them at all.

About the town of Koyasan - Koyasan is one large seminary of Shingon Buddhism and there are 117 temples. One of the main attractions here is the tombstones leading to the Okunoin temple - a half million tombs set in a forest of cedar trees that are over 500 years old. The place feels almost surreal and it has an energy that makes you want to linger and spend time sitting and reflecting.

Most of the tombs in the cemetery are for loved ones and some have been here since its founding in 816, but there were a few that were quite interesting. One from a pesticide company to commemorate all its insect victims, another from Nissan for past employees and one from an aerospace company which had a rocket-shaped tomb.

We rented an audio guide from the Tourist office and walked our way through town. It was a good 5-6 hour walk with breaks - very pleasant. In the middle of the afternoon, we saw a group of about 20 monks alternately walking and jogging in their clogs down the main street.  It looked like they were exercising or it was some kind of test.  They attracted quite a bit of attention, even with the locals.

We also found we had more interaction with the locals. We stopped for coffee (still an expensive past time in Japan) and a young guy approached us in the cafe. Wanted to know where we from and when we responded ĻCanadaĻ, there was look of utter surprise on his face. He said Ļbut your skin is blackĻ. So we explained.....and had a bit of a conversation with him after that.

Being a temple city, we were approached twice by women who asked us if we were Indo. We assumed they meant Indian and we said yes. In hindsight, we think they are referring to Hinduism, because of the similarity to Buddhism. The first woman who asked us got quite emotional and she was clasping my hand and bowing her head repeatedly. But unfortunately with the language issue, it was hard to communicate and we didnīt know exactly what she was saying so we nodded our heads as well and nodded some more - her emotional outburst was quite a humbling experience. The 2nd woman who approached us was more animated. We thought she was trying to correct our Japanese.

The temple stay overall was interesting but definitely catered to foreigners so we donīt think it is very authentic. It would also have helped to have some material in English which explained some of the rituals at the fire ceremony.
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