> We left K’s House early to get breakfast at this little ramen joint near Kyoto station. This was very near the bridge where I thought I had left my book the day before. It was not far to walk from K’s House. The little shop was bustling with locals coming in and out for the yummy ramen. It was so small that there was no place to queue and anyone coming in just stood awkwardly against the door and waited for someone to finish. Obviously so, we had to leave our bulky backpacks at the entrance, taking up even more space in the already packed-to-the-gills shop.
Everything was in Japanese. See the prices on the wall. So we had no idea what we were ordering. We just said with big smiles “Ramen!” and held up our fingers to indicate how many bowls. But just as we were blur, the guy serving us was just as blur! So we were really communicating like chicken and duck! To his credit, each time the frustration got to him, he just took a deep breath, excused himself with a “Chotto!” and went off serving someone else. So we just had to be really patient and wait. Eventually, we got all our orders – much later than the other customers because of the communication difficulty. But the soup was thick and flavourful and the ramen nicely al dente – a great breakfast all round.
From Kyoto station, we took a shinkansen to Shin Osaka. It was easy-peasy to do with our JR Pass. Just hop on the train but be careful not to take the Nozomi which the JR Pass does not cover. Reservations not needed, we just made sure we were in line early enough in the designated queue for the non-reserved cars. From Kyoto to Osaka, it was only about 15min by shinkansen. Picture on the left shows us on the shinkansen platform at Kyoto station.
Once at Shin-Osaka, it was also very easy to just head for the basement directly below the JR station to catch the subway south to Namba where we had to take the train to Koya-san. Namba station is the heart and soul of Osaka’s Minami district where the restaurants, nightlife etc are. The place is vibrant day and night both above, and below ground. A network warren of malls connect the Namba subway station with the Nankai station. Nankai station is a privately owned line and the Koya line takes us all the way to Koya-san, one of Japan’s most sacred places.
We decided not to cart all our backpacks to Koya-san since we were only spending a night there and returning to Osaka the next day. So we had arranged enough of our stuff to go into one daypack and the rest of the big packs were stored in the left luggage section of Nankai station. It would have been better to get one of the big lockers but they were all booked out. Note that there are limited large lockers in Nankai Namba station, but if you had no choice – like us – you could easily just put them with the left luggage counter. Its pretty costly though – 600yen per bag per day. So with two backpacks, it cost us 2400yen just to store luggage!
Getting to Koya-san is really half the fun of the whole experience. The train, more like a commuter train, first cuts through the concrete urban jungle of Osaka. Then it leaves the wires and telephone poles and grey cement behind for green fields, tiny crop holdings, small townships. As the train gradually empties out, it chugs higher into the hills, clinging to hillsides of bamboo and cedar, stopping at isolated stations perched precariously on ledges overlooking rushing streams and forest. Who really lives here? Surely there must be people living nearby or a station would not have been built here. But apart from the lone wooden single-storey station building, there were no other houses immediately in the vicinity that we could see. The views spanned from valleys, hillsides bronzed in green gold from the afternoon sun, darkened into tunnels and opened out into blue, shadowed stations.
Koyasan is all about mist, legend, reverence and faith. The temples, the village that grew around it and the large rambling grounds of Okunoin, Japan’s largest cemetery all grew out of faith and devotion to Kukai the monk, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, otherwise known as Kobo Daishi the saint who is even now believed to be not dead, but in deep eternal meditation in his incense-shrouded mausoleum.
As a Catholic, I have visited several Catholic shrines in Europe. This time, though not a Buddhist, I approach this visit to Koyasan with the same reverie and contemplation that comes with visiting a very holy place. But as with all pilgrimages, getting to a holy place is never easy or straightforward – in both the physical and spiritual sense. In Koyasan’s case, getting to Koyasan for us entailed taking three trains, one funicular ropeway and one bus!
We arrived at Gokurabashi, the terminal station, where a red lacquered bridge spanned a rushing river and a red-bibbed Jizo sat tranquilly at one end. From Gokurabashi, we took the funicular up the steep hillside to the bus terminal.
From the bus terminal, no one is permitted to walk the last stretch to Koyasan village because it was a winding road meant only for vehicles. Our tickets from Namba Nankai covered the whole trip – train, funicular and bus-ride. But this was not included in the JR pass.
Koyasan village has one main street flanked by shops and temples. I had chosen to stay at Shojoshinin right at the end of Koyasan village because it was right next to the entrance to Okunoin which would be handy for late night strolls. We arrived under blue skies and golden late afternoon sun. Despite the long journey, we were all excited to finally be here. And as if in response to our great mood, we saw a shooting star cross the late afternoon sky, its tail trailing bright white against the blue. First time in my life I ever saw one and it happened here in Koyasan. Does it have any significance? We found our way to Shojoshinin with no problem. The bus-stop was right across the road. This is the side gate of Shojoshinin.
All seemed quiet but we bumped into a tall monk who spoke some English. He welcomed us warmly and checked us in, briefing us on the dos and don’ts before showing us to our room, or more correctly, our house! Yes, we got a private residence, called a hanare, all to ourselves!
Set apart from the main temple buildings, the hanare is a standalone house surrounded by gardens. From the picture above, the hanare stands out of sight in the greenery on the right of the gate as you enter.
Like all Japanese houses, we removed our shoes before stepping up the steps into the house. There was a living area which came complete with a kotatsu! A kotatsu is a heated table with a blanket. People sit at the table with their feet beneath the blanket, warmed by the heat there. Very useful for cold nights.
There were three sleeping areas, easily demarcated into rooms with gilded sliding shoji screen doors. Futons were already laid out in readiness. The toilets (one western with a heated seat and the other a traditional Japanese squat type) was outside the living/sleeping area, along one side of the house. There was a traditional deep tub made of cedar for Japanese style bathing. A glass enclosed veranda ran all around the house’s perimeter. Steps led from the veranda down to the little garden in front of the house.
All we could say was: Wow!
We had some time before dinner – which was served early at 5.30pm. Initially we wanted to walk Okunoin that evening but because dinner was so early, we abandoned that plan. Instead, we explored the first 300m of the cemetery and then made a u-turn to return to the temple.
What’s so special about Okunoin, you might ask? And why do the creepy thing by walking through a cemetery? Well, Okunoin is fascinating. When Kobo Daishi passed away more than 1200 years ago, his body was interred in a mausoleum in Okunoin and since then, hundreds of thousands of Buddhist faithfuls have sought to have their remains buried near him. From emperors to shoguns, witches and monks, poets and even today’s corporate warriors, anybody who was ever somebody in Japan, everyone wants to get in on the action when Kobo Daishi (as they believe) rises again because he’s the only guy who can interpret what the Miroku Buddha says, so there is much jockeying to get into pole position among the dead.
Big corporations like Panasonic and UCC Coffee reserve lots here for their faithful employees’ ashes. If you can’t be bodily interred here, even a lock of hair, a fingernail clipping would do.
Walking through it at dusk with the kids, it was not scary at all. We ‘purified’ ourselves by washing our hands with water from the purification fount just before the bridge at the entrance. There were others also walking the path. The graves were old and mossy but the paths were kept in good condition. We didn’t go far because we didn’t have time. The stone lanterns, flanking the path, were just lit and the light falling as we turned back to go for dinner.
Dinner was vegetarian – shojin ryori – no meat, no onions, no garlic. We ate sitting on cushions bent over red lacquered trays.
KH the neanderthal suffered for the lack of meat! But I thought dinner was great and very flavourful. I could not get enough of the softly fluffy rice with stewed beans or vegetables. The tempura veggies were also light, crisp and delicious with the dipping sauce and some daikon. The tofu, Koya tofu, was different from the usual tofu, being stickier and a bit more pasty. It took some getting used to, but it was good. The younger kids had the cream of veggie soup in addition to their servings.
After dinner, the children indulged in their favourite Japanese activity – bathing! After soaking in the hot bath, they huddled under the kotatsu and watched tv while KH and I wore our yukatas and tanzen and headed off for a night walk through Okunoin. We had a tiny torch but did not need to use it. The path was lit by occasional streetlamps and the orange light from the stone lanterns. We could barely see the graves on either side of the path.
I did not get any eerie feelings. The only time I felt a bit nervous was a swath of path that was not lit by any streetlamp. We used the torch and that was the only time I felt like hurrying.
We didn’t go far because it was a 45-minute walk all the way into the inner sanctuary of Okunoin. So we turned back.
The night was cold and very still. There was no wind, no movement in the air, just a deep chill. I felt a nice sense of peace sitting out on the veranda after the walk. There was a cemetery, more than a thousand years old, right next door, darkness was all around, but the lights from the hanare were warm and comforting and the stars in the night sky sparkled brightly. I had never seen so many stars. It occurred to me that dressed in my yukata, hair pulled up in a knot, sitting on the veranda of a Japanese house, that I could not be more “in the moment”. Perhaps hundreds of years ago, there could well be another woman dressed like me, sitting the same way and staring out at the same timeless stars. I liked the sense of parallelism.