>Day 11 Koyasan and Osaka


It was dark when I woke up, stumbling over sleeping bodies on the futon to shiver while getting dressed. While staying in a temple, it was only polite and respectful to try to participate in some form of temple life, particularly in their prayer time or ceremonies. In Koyasan, some temples conduct fire ceremonies in the morning but here in Shojoshinin, it was just simply morning prayers.

But even that meant getting up at 5.45am to make it for morning prayers in the big hall. I was the earliest to arrive, after a few wrong turns in the darkened and quiet corridors.

I met the tall monk who checked us in from the day before and he smilingly showed me the way. I took my place on a bench at the back of the hall. Kerosene heaters were ablaze and creating a quiet buzzing in the early morning silence. One by one, other bleary-eyed travellers came in and sat at the back with me. We said little to each other beyond a smile and ‘good morning’. Probably it was too early or the hushed atmosphere which just required silence.

I thought I would be bored, but surprisingly, I was not. It was interesting to hear the monks chanting, the occasional clash of cymbals or the deep resonating ‘dong’ of the bell. There was a soothing rhythm to the chants, like a pleasant, meandering humming river. In the semi-darkness with only the light of candles, sitting with strangers and listening to monks’ chanting in the early hours of the morning, it was an experience well worth waking up early for!

It was almost 7am by the time the ceremony was over and time for breakfast. The kids were up by the time I went back to the hanare. Everyone was excited – there was frost on the leaves! It was the first time we had ever seen frost. The night before had been still but deeply cold but yet it was a nice surprise for all of us to actually see the silver-rimmed leaves and branches in the morning!

Breakfast was again strictly vegetarian fare. But it was good! I enjoyed the stewed spinach (in the middle of the tray) and happily accepted everybody else’s offer of it since most of the kids did not like their veg. Isaac surprised me this trip by really being very enthusiastic about his food – in particular the kaiseki meal at Kokuya and the shojin ryori at Shojoshinin.

Breakfast over, we regretfully checked out of the hanare. I think all of us wished we had that little house for longer. But it was more practical to check out since we were going to Okunoin and we would not be able to make it back in time for the official check-out time.

Okunoin was vast, sprawling, spreading over hectares filled with towering ancient cedars, mossy stones, red-bibbed Jizos and the tantalisingly lure of legends. There was the tiny well which was said to be able to foretell your long life or predict death. If you could see your reflection in the waters below, you would be assured of a decent lifespan. If you could not, expect to say sayonara in two to three years!

Then there is this one on the right – a tiny stone post commemorating a nun who died several hundred years ago. It was said that if you listened hard enough, you could hear the sounds of hell echoing from below. Yes my kids just HAD to try this even though they were nervously giggling away! For the record, they heard nothing.

Okunoin was fascinating. There were small tombs belonging to individuals, names eroded by time and covered in moss, there were large tombs bought by corporate big names like Panasonic or UCC Coffee for their employees… everyone just wants a share of the land nearest Kobo Daishi in the afterlife! There was even a largish tomb shaped like a space rocket and another that had a jet airplane. These were found in the newer section of the cemetery when we walked back to catch the bus.

After almost 45minutes, we got closer to the heart of Okunoin – the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi. The path opened out into a clearing with a big hall. This is where you can make your offerings, get your temple stamp and calligraphy, purchase omamori and so on. This is also the place where temple staff prepare meals for Kobo Daishi. They believe he is still alive and hence will still faithfully prepare meals for him. This is also where eight significant statues are, among them six Jizos. Pilgrims are encouraged to drench the statues with water to provide succour and relief for the Jizos when they descend to the netherworld to do their job – protect and give relief to the souls of the tiny babies who have died, been aborted or miscarried, or children who have died in childhood. It is said that when these babies die, their souls go to a netherworld where they do hard labour. It is a cold, friendless stony place which is often dry and hot. Jizo would descend to help the babies and protet them against the nasty demons who are ever ready to torment them. Drenching the Jizo can be compared to fire-fighters who pour water over themselves before running in to fight a deadly blaze.

Just next to the row of statues is the bridge running over the Tamagawa stream, called Gobyo-no hashi. Embedded in the stream bed are a line of wooden stakes called sotoba, memorials to the drowned and miscarried babies. Once acrosss the bridge, photography is not allowed. But in the background, you can see the steps leading up to the Hall of Lanterns, or Torodo. Kobo Daishi’s tomb is behind this hall. It is said we have to cross the bridge with a pure mind and a pure heart. I’m not sure if i filled this criteria but heck, we crossed anyway!

Just beyond the bridge are more tombs, in one corner, the tombs of emperors. Among them is a small building, about the size of a phone booth, with lattice wooden walls. Within is the Miroku-ishi rock. This is a rock, I think about 3 kg heavy, like a black oval oversized egg. The legend is that you’ve got to move the rock from its resting place to a ledge above. If you can do that, you have a pure heart and you’re probably a good person since the stone is supposed to feel light to the good and heavy to those who are evil. The catch is, you can only use one hand to do lift it since there is only a small window, enough for one arm to go through.

Okay, pity pictures were not allowed because we all tried our best to lift it amidst much pained expressions, red faces, loud grunts and popping joints from arm sockets. Some of us came close but none succeeded. Except for KH. It seemed almost effortless to him. So now you know who has the purest heart among all of us!

With the exception of Trin, who had a mini tantrum, there seemed to be a solemn air pervading the Torodo and understandably so. Within the hall are thousands of bronze lanterns kept alight continuously. These are donated by devotees. Out of these, in the back of the hall, are two that have been kept alight for more than 1000 years. One was donated by an emperor and the other by an old woman who sold everything she had to buy the lantern.

Just behind the Torodo, shrouded in circling mists of incense and flowers, is Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum. You could offer a lit candle here, or a lit joss. But we chose to just stand in silence as a mark of respect, contemplating the legend of the man and the whole trail of tombs that have led us here, to the heart of Okunoin. Another family was there. They had a man in his 50s with them and from the sound of it, he might have been suffering from Tourette’s syndrome. Every once in a while, the silence would be broken by a sudden shout or agitated yell in Japanese. It was startling and rather disconcerting. The kids glanced curiously at him and asked why he was yelling like this. I said he could not help it, he wasn’t trying to be rude but it was a condition he suffered from.

It took us more than 45min just to walk one way to the Torodo and about another 40min to walk back. En route, I got my henro from the Gokusho, the Hall of Offerings. We passed the memorial tomb of the famous 47 ronin and their master Asano. We took the path that led through the newer wing of the cemetery where tombs were clearly built sometime in the middle of the last century. Along the way, we passed tombs marked with icons of rockets and aeroplanes!

It was almost 2pm by the time we got the bus back to Shojoshinin, collected our bags, walked to the heart of town, got the next bus down to the bus station for our ride all the way back down to Gokurabashi and to Osaka. Lunch was in a little cafe perched on a hillside, next to the funicular station. It had great valley views and tasty meals. The kids loved the niku udon and the beef curry.

In Osaka, we had no problem finding our hotel since it was just almost outside the Nankai station. We just had to find the right exit, climb the stairs and right at the top, at street level, is the entrance to Hotel Ichiei! Convenient! Especially when you’re tired from a lot of travelling.

I liked Ichiei for its interesting rooms and spacious layout – generous by business hotel standards. The kids had a full tatami-mat Japanese room with futon bedding while KH, Trin and I had a semi-western/Japanese style room. Both were tastefully done up and I liked the fact that they had internet connections but I was not very comfortable with the lack of security. Anyone could come up from street level right into the room floors without passing the front desk. But the price was certainly good value for the rooms we got and it was in the heart of Minami, easy access to nightlife, food and shopping.

It was raining but because the Namba area had such a warren of underground walkways, stations and shopping malls, we could easily walk from our hotel to the main shopping drag without getting wet. Once above ground, there were covered arcades with a bewildering array of food choices. We all pigged out on 100yen conveyor belt sushi for dinner. Cheap, not the best grade of fish and cuts, but satisfying. We had grand plans initially, to walk around the Dotombori area, but I think we were all a bit tired from the journey. With the rain pouring down, it just seemed easier to head back and crash for an early night. The next day was going to be day packed with 5-star sights and lots of travelling!

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