So! Time to travel! I woke up early this morning to bid farewell to Kyoto, say goodbye to Liza and begin the journey to Mt. Koya (or Koya-san in Japanese). Koya is a small sacred town, 820 m high in the mountains, notable for being in essence the birthplace of Japanese Buddhism.
I was dreading the journey, in a way, because of all the exchanges you have to make to get from Kyoto to Koya: first you take a shinkansen to Osaka, then the subway to Nanba, then a train to the base of the mountain, then a cable car to Koya, then a bus to wherever it is you’re staying.
However, it turned out to be much better than it reads on paper. The shinkansen ride to Osaka takes barely 15 minutes, and although the train is the longest part of the journey clocking in at about an hour and a half, the train-cable car-bus combination went as smooth as it gets: although they aren’t very frequent, they are timed to coincide with each other so the cable car will be waiting for you when you get off the train, and a bus will be waiting for you when you get off the cable car. In total, I took the 8:52 shinkansen and I was in my room at about 12:30.
Koya-san receives an enormous amount of visitors every year, and it’s easy to tell by how well signaled and explained everything is. When I arrived at the bus station asking after the temple I was staying in, they gave me an English map with explanations. One of them was:
- Our bus drivers cannot speak English.
Well, there you go. Just in case you were wondering.
By the time I got to the cable car station, it was already very cold. The views from the train were beautiful: big, round hills covered with pines, as far as the eye can see. It’s by far the most natural landscape I’ve seen so far in Japan (not that that’s a surprise, considering I’ve mostly stayed in Tokyo and Kyoto). Looking at the people shivering in the cold, waiting for the cable car, I’d say the tourist population today was more or less evenly distributed between gaijin and Japanese pilgrims.
I’m staying at Ekoin, as recommended by a friend, and it’s a beautiful place. It is spacious, very close to Okunoin (the cemetery, more on that later), and the room here is very big too. It is freezing inside -I have a heater on right next to me as I write this, and even so my hands are getting cold- but thankfully I came with my warmest clothes on.
Once checked in having left my stuff, I was left to my own devices for a while and I took the chance to walk around the town. It’s very small, and very very quiet. It is surrounded by the forest, to a degree that you can see the trees from anywhere you stand. Sometimes a chilly mountain wind will blow along the street, and sometimes the sun will shine through the clouds and warm us for the briefest of moments. There are omiyage shops and repair garages right next to ancient temples.
I took the chance to visit Daitoji, the biggest temple complex here. It was founded over 1,200 years ago, although the majority of the buildings -as usual- are reconstructions, although at least these were pre-WWII. According to my leaflet, there are some temples that have burnt down -and subsequently reconstructed- up to six times! Their insurance premiums must be through the roof!
After the walk, I went back to the temple to try my hand at copying a sutra (I kinda gave up halfway through; I don’t think my calligraphy is doing anyone any favours) and I went to the meditation session. I’m all for achieving relaxation and serenity, but the cold and the achey legs and back got in the way a little! The monks here did give us a short explanation on zazen (sitting meditation) before practicing.
And then after that, they brought dinner to my room. As this is a temple, the food here is shyojin-ryori, a type of vegetarian cuisine. Everybody reading this probably knows to what point my vegetable intake is sorely lacking, but there’s one thing I like about vegetarian meals: I may or may not like what is on my plate, but it won’t have eyes!
They just came over to take away dinner and lay out the futon. I see on my left the ultra-thick duvet laid on top of a blanket, and on my right the heater, and I have the dreadfull feeling that neither one is going to prevent me from freezing half to death tonight.. We’ll see!
Later on: the night-time tour of Okunoin. I’ll keep you posted!