Day 7: Koyasan or one day living with monks

Trip Start Apr 08, 2010
Trip End May 06, 2010

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Flag of Japan  , Kinki,
Thursday, April 15, 2010

We could not come to Japan and not experience the religious side of the country.
Koya-san was thus the perfect destination to escape the city and retire (at least for one day!) in a buddhist temple to live with the monks on the top of a holly mountain.

The route to Koya-san from Kyoto is pretty easy: first you catch a Shinkansen to Shin-Osaka (14 minutes), then connect with the subway (Midosuji Line) to Namba station (15 minutes), the second largest train station in Osaka. From there, there is no direct train to Kaya-san with JR lines (japanese national railway). Thus our 14 days JR pass was useless at this point, and we had to buy a ticket on a private railway, Nankai-Dentetsu. Actually, they sell a pretty interesting package: return train ticket to Koya-san (including cable car which brings you from the train station in the valley  - Gokurakubashi - to the top of the mountain), 2 days bus card in Koya (you have to take bus from the cable car station to the city center since no pedestrians are allowed on the road), and discount tickets to enter major temples.

The journey to Koya was perfect thanks to the efficiency and punctuality of japanese trains.
When we left Osaka, the sky was grey, but when we arrived in Gokurakubashi, it was raining… The mountain was covered with mist, making it look like out of time and unreal.
We took the very old fashioned cable car, and while ascending the steep slopes of Mount Koya, the rain turned into… SNOW !!! We managed to avoid snow a few days earlier by quitting our trip to Nikko, but it took its revenge on Koya-san!

Hence, the arrival in Koya was pretty freezing, and you could not imagine we were in april ;-) Fortunately we brought our fleece jackets with us but we wished we had not left our gloves in France ;-)

But we did not lose our motivation and envy to discover this extra-ordinary city. The good point of such a winter-like weather is that Koya was almost empty of tourists!
And as the city is pretty small, you can walk everywhere from one point to an other. Bus is still available if you feel tired or too cold!

We first visited Kongobu-ji temple, which is the main temple of the Shingon sect. It was definitely worth visiting, especially in those freezing conditions. The building, from the XIXth century is huge and all made of wood. The rooms inside are very well decorated by beautiful paintings, and the rock garden is amazing. A cup of tea is offered and you can enjoy the monk explanations while admiring the rack garden (I mean, you can enjoy it if you understand japanese…). I have to say the warm tea was deeply appreciated ;-)
In one of the buildings of the temples, paintings explain the story of Kobo Daishi, the monk who founded the Shingon sect and settled a community on Koya-san in 816. He is one of the most famous religious figure in Japan.

We then went to Danjo Garan, a sacred place close to Kongobu-ji, where you can find many temples. Among them, the Dai-to (the great Stupa) is a gigantic pagoda which represents the center of the lotus flower in the mandala formed by the eight mountains surrounding Koya-san. It was rebuilt in 1934 after a fire, and recently re-painted in a flashy orange colour.  When you enter the pagoda, you can find Dainichi-nyorai (the cosmic buddha) and the four buddhas assisting him.

For the record, during all our visits in Koya-san, and in Japan in general, we were very surprised to notice how traditional houses and temples are badly thermally insulated. As all of you may know, in a traditional japanese house, the structure is made of wood, the walls and doors are made of "paper", making the house "open to the outside"! It is often beautiful, but when the temperature is as low as it was in Koya, you just freeze! It is barely exaggerated since we could almost not take pictures any more after 90 minutes of visit. It felt like you were skiing without gloves…

Hence, we decided to go to eko-in temple to check-in. it is a large temple on the eastern side of the city. It is governed by monks and has around 37 rooms. A young and very nice monk welcomed us, and showed us our room: japanese style room, with garden view. Hot tea and sweets were waiting for us. The table was equipped with a heating system, which enabled you to put your legs underneath the table and keep it warm with a blanket.

The monk told us we could register to a night guided tour of the cemetery, after lunch (served at 17:30). We did so, but we also decided to go for a visit of the cemetery by ourselves while it was still daylight.
Oku-no-in is the cemetery/temple of Koya-san, and every buddhist in Japan may have its grave (burried ashes or hair) in it. Actually it costs a lot of money to be burried in Oku-no-in, and nowadays many famous people have their graves over there: actors, singers, even the former CEO of Panasonic.

The faithful of the Shingon sect believe Kobo Daishi is not dead, but rest in peace in its grave in Oku-no-in, meditating and waiting for the arrival of Miroku, the Buddha of the future.

The visit of Oku-no-in is very impressive as you walk on the paved path among thousands of tombstones and giant cedars. We wandered randomly and enjoy the very peaceful and mystical atmosphere of the place. And still no one but us… We did not reach the end of the cemetery by lack of time, but we would be having more details during the night guided tour.

We finally went back to Eko-in to have dinner at 17:30. Monks eat and serve shojin-ryori cuisine, which is vegetarian food typical from Koya-san. Contrary to sceptical comments we read on blogs about the food, we found it delicious.

The guided tour of Oku-no-in started at 19:15. The guide was a young monk speaking a good english. Visiting the cemetery by night is even more intimidating, all the more than the path is barely lit. Explanations of the monk were very interesting, especially when we reached the end of the cemetery where sits the Toro-do (lantern hall). To enter the site of the temple, you have to cross a bridge, and the usual tradition is to wash yourself in the river before crossing. Considering the temperature, we did not, and instead, we "rinsed" buddhas statues siting there, while thinking we were washing ourselves.
We finally entered the temple and discovered Toro-do. Thousands of lanterns are hung there, for the monks to prey for ever for their owner, who pay a steep price to have this privilege.
The temple also hosts the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi. The door was closed so that you could not see anything, but the monk told us they believe Kobo Daishi was behind there, meditating. Hence they brought him food every day for breakfast and dinner.

Whether you believe in it or not, the tour was very interesting on a cultural point of view, and visiting Oku-no-in by night, with or without a guide is highly recommended.

We then returned to Eko-in, and went for a hot bath (Onsen) before going to bed.

For the record, onsen are very popular in Japan, and this one in Koya-san was our first japanese-style hot bath. You enter a first room where you can find a basket in which you put all your clothes. You just keep a face towel which will be used to clean yourself and get some privacy if needed. Then you enter the hot bath room itself, and you have to wash yourself (with soap) before using the hot bath. Whatever the method may be compared to other hot bath, the sensation remains the same: deeply relaxing!

And easy for us to sleep afterwards, and be ready for the morning prayers with the monks…

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