Saturday, February 28, 2015

Japan - Koyasan

Following a night on my own in Osaka, I spent the next morning slowly met up with my other friends who came in at different times from different countries…and squeezing in a quick game of DDR of course!

After we had all congregated, we grabbed a quick soba meal at Nanba train station (with wasabi root that you have to grate to get your wasabi…loving it), which has a vast selection of food before making our way to Koyasan.

Koyasan is a World Heritage site, and the centre of Shingon Buddhism, which was introduced to Japan in 805 by Kobo Daishi who brought it to Japan from China. Following the building of the first temple by Kobo Daishi in 826, when he deemed that Koyasan was the best place for to be the home of the religion, more than 100 temples have been built there since. 

It’s a pretty straight forward trip, roughly a 2 hour train ride from Nanba station in Osaka, just be conscious that you may have to get off the train and move to a different carriage, as they shorten the train as it continues up the mountains! It’s a beautiful and relaxing ride, with the scenery constantly changing. Bring a good book, or load your tablet up with episodes of Ink Master (or maybe that’s just me).

My friends stocked up on Krispy Kremes for the train ride up. Just how cute is the snowman one? Highly recommended!

Once the train pulls into Koyasan station, you change on to a cable car, which climbs an impossibly steep slope through the forest, to take you up to the very top of the mountain. I can’t help but feel like I’m in a Hayao Miyazaki film, with nothing but dense trees surrounding, lush and green, with a couple giving away to the chill and turning orange as autumn creeps in. 

And once you’re up at the top of the cablecar, you will need to take the bus (there’s only one route fortunately!) to get to your accommodation. 

At Koyasan, there are no ‘hotels’ as such, instead, you stay in temple lodges that are looked after by monks. But don’t get it twisted, you can get some very, very, very nice accommodation here, which surprised me immensely.

My friend had organised for us to stay at Fudouin, and it is impeccably looked after. Although definitely traditional, it’s looking very new and clean, with beautifully kept gardens and an overall zen feeling, although I suppose you would expect that at a buddhist centre now right? 

I was fortunate enough to stay in one of the nicest rooms in the lodge, which was simply ginormous, with a room for the futons to be set up, a room with a kotatsu (a low wooden table covered by a futon, that has a heater underneath…it’s the best), and a brand spanking new bathroom that had a bath tub that filled up with the press of a button.

I hadn’t gotten much information from my friend before we arrived, and safe to say, this was far more than I expected. We even had wifi! 

We were a little early for dinner, so we walked around the small town, picked up some snacks for our evening meeting, as well as beer for dinner, the temple lodging obviously don’t supply alcohol but you’re welcome to BYO, and jumped like lunatics in front of temples. Just your average Thursday night out right?

So accommodation at these temple lodges include dinner and breakfast, both of which are vegetarian. Although some of my forum mates were bemoaning this initially (boys…), once we actually went to sit down (in the dining room that is over 150 years old, the oldest in Koyasan apparently) and eat…we were all simply blown away.


Composed of lots of little dishes, from cold and silky tofu, a range of pickles, to simple the best vegetable tempura I’ve ever had, to a couple of slices of potato seasoned just right; this was the best vegetarian meal I’ve ever had. There’s also a bowl of hot udon in soup waiting for you, and the monks, who speak excellent English, bring around plenty of rice. I was surprised how full I was at the end of the night!

The next morning, if you wake up early enough, you can join them for morning service, which is around 6:30 or 7:00am, and is quite a surreal experience in the dim candle light as the monks chant, and go through their rituals which includes a variety of bells and instruments. At the end, the head monk actually gives you a little history lesson on Koyasan and Fudouin (most facts I’ve mentioned earlier in this post), before guiding you to breakfast…

…where you’re treated to another beautiful laid out vegetarian meal. I’m surprised how much care they take into presenting the meal as well, a visual feast before you even get to eating! And just in case you think the bright orange liquid in the egg cup is an egg yolk…it’s actually a carrot juice/puree. Tricked all of us. 

The thing most people come to Koyasan to see, is Okunoin, a ginormous graveyard with more than 200,000 grave stones that lead up to Okunoin Gyobo, a mausoleum that was erected by Kukai’s disciples when he passed. 

Although we weren’t allowed to take pictures in the mausoleum, which is beautiful, the graveyard itself is a stunning walk, where forestry has taken over most of the stones, and you do indeed feel like you’re suddenly in a Miyazaki film. I loved all the Buddha and deity statues that had been draped with little bibs or aprons, adding a flourish of colour to the forest.  

We also stumbled on to Torodo, the lantern temple, which is simply one of the most beautiful spaces, it’s walls lined with temples, some of which supposedly have been burning for thousands of years (with some maintenance I’m sure though). 

Just before we headed back to the cable car to make our descent down the hill, we popped into one of the only cafes in Koyasan, the Bon On Shya International Cafe. The small and cosy spot is very earthy, and once again, makes me feel like I’m in a Miyazaki film. Here, we have a delicious flourless chocolate cake, and a surprisingly good chai latte, who would’ve thought? My friends are also very appreciative for excellent coffee as well (especially after that early morning service!)

It was quite sad to be leaving Koyasan, where the air is so crisp and fresh, and the atmosphere is always calm and relaxed. If you’re ever visiting Japan and have an extra day or two to spare in Kyoto or Osaka, I would highly recommend an overnight stay, as it was definitely one of my highlights of the trip. 

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