Day 10 of Japan: Koyasan and Okunoin

Pictures ahoy and now complete with text!

Today we set out from Kyoto for Koyasan, a village in the nearby mountains that was founded by a Buddhist monk in the 800s AD and now has over 100 Buddhist temples.

The first picture is of the alley outside our hotel in Kyoto – we walked this alley many times, often dodging such bikes as the one shown here.

To get to Koyasan the guidebooks say it usually takes about 2.5 hours, but we had some exciting adventures so our journey took a bit longer. From Kyoto station, we took a approx. 30 minute train to Osaka and then caught another train around Osaka to another station in that city. From this station we caught a train that would take us directly to the base of the mountain where Koyasan is located, or so we thought. Unfortunately, our train from Osaka actually changed into another train after a long stop in a small train station and we weren’t aware of the situation until we noticed our train had changed directions… We got off at the next stop, which was an even smaller train station with no people or houses anywhere in sight (it was a little unnerving), but we luckily quickly caught another train forward a few stops to a bigger station, where we waited half an hour for the next train that would actually take us to the mountain. From the base of the mountain we caught a cable car up the hill to Koyasan, where we caught a bus into the actual town (the road into town is so narrow and curvy that only cars are allowed – no pedestrians!).

For all the excitement we had, it was a really beautiful trip. Some picture comments:
* Osaka: The first 6 pictures (after the alley picture) are of Osaka. It’s a very industrial city, and looked similar to Kyoto from the brief glimpses we got – Pachinko is still clearly present, and there are some beautiful wide, shallow rivers between the gray skyscrapers.
* The next 8 pictures are of the countryside from Osaka to Koyasan. Lots of little villages, some with very traditional-looking architecture, and lots of beautiful, green forest. Also, lots of rice paddies. Much more thick forest as we approached Koyasan.
* The next 10 pictures are of the cable cars, clearly. It was a very steep incline, but quite beautiful and well-maintained – there were actually several workers getting rid of encroaching weeds when we road up the car. And yes, very beautiful forest and rivers – very green!

Once we had made it to Koyasan, we were a bit worn out but still wanted to check out a few places before collapsing for the night. We booked our hotel when we arrived at the Central Information Center and made our walk to our hotel. The entire town of Koysan is very small – from one end to the other, at the widest spots, it could probably be walked easily in about an hour and a half. There’s only one grocery store, and it’s quite small, though there are K-12 schools. It’s really become a tourist town, though luckily we were there during the off-season so it was pretty quiet.

Walking around town, here are some picture highlights:
* We stopped by the Buddhist temple Daishi Kyokai – the pictures start at Teisha standing at its entrance and include the following 12 pictures. Unfortunately, we couldn’t really find anything out about this temple. It had some interesting Roman-style statues of a group of boys in front. Inside the temple was a beautiful, ornate alter, with a Buddha at the center, very much in the Japanese Buddhist style we saw at other temples. There were also many ornate lanterns hanging from the ceiling – Teisha fell in love with them.
* In the front of the Daishi Kyokai temple is a Shinto shrine, but (like many Shinto shrines in Koyasan) we could not even determine its name, let alone what it was a shrine to. The shrine was on a little island in a pond, with a little orange bridge to it (3 pictures after the temple). Very beautiful.
* There is beautiful moss and plant life everywhere in Koyasan – we took a picture of some unique-looking, red-veined ivy on a stone wall by the side of the road.
* The three pictures after the ivy (with the raked gravel) are of the front of the temple we stayed at – more on this later.
* The next picture is of a wooden, centuries-old belfry of one of the Buddhist temples, but we can’t remember which one..!

Having some time before our room was ready, we hopped on the little town bus across to the enormous graveyard, Okunoi. Kobe Daishi was the founder of Japanese Buddhism (he went to China for two years to study Buddhism, and brought ideas back to Japan), as well as the creator of the Japanese character system (kana) and the founder of Koyasan. It is believed that he went in to eternal meditation upon his passing in 835AD and a mausoleum was built for him. The cemetery basically leads up to the hill where his mausoleum is, a 2 km path, and there are now over 200,000 grave stones, from military leaders to the “common folk,” surrounded by cedar trees that are hundreds of years old. The area near the entrance is much more modern in appearance (see the white grave stones without trees between them), but as you keep going everything becomes moss-covered, sometimes lichen-covered, and beautiful trees everywhere. Some observations:
* We often saw Shinto gates at some grave stones, which seemed strange to us in a Buddhist graveyard, but for the Japanese the two religions are not really contradictory.
* There were often offerings on the grave stones, from fruit, beer/soda cans, to money.
* There is a picture near the end of these of a giant memorial made of many small human figurines, many with red “aprons.” This is a memorial to children lost in miscarriages and people who drowned.
* We heard there was a memorial from a pesticide company for all the insects they had to kill, but we didn’t see it.
* We couldn’t take pictures of the most sacred tombs around Kobe Daishi’s mausoleum, but they were very similar in style. In this area was a temple filled with lanterns, called the lantern temple Torodo, which has two lanterns that have been burning uninterrupted for a thousand years and many thousands of lanterns that have been donated over the years.

After the cemetery we headed to our lodgings. The 10 pictures after the cemetery are of our room. We stayed at the Henjousonin temple, one of many temples in town that has hotel rooms built in. While the temple area is probably much the same it has been for centuries, the hotel part (attached seamlessly) is quite modern and by far the best room we’ve had yet. There was a little entry way to our room, where there was a small adjoining room with the (amazing) toilet and a closet with our bedding. Like all places we’ve stayed at, there was free tea and hot water. We also had an amazing view from our room (it was hard to image) of a courtyard garden with a stream and koi.

Most, if not all, of the temples in Koyasan with lodging include dinner and breakfast with lodging, featuring their famous vegetarian Buddhist cuisine. We were told to shower off and come to dinner in our yukata (light cotton komono). They had really nice hot tubs, much like what we had in the Kuruma Onsen. Dinner was amazing – it was a sampling plate and we didn’t know what most of the food was, but we had fun trying the same thing together at the same time. It was probably the best dinner we’ve had in Japan. The fuzzy close-up is of a bark-thing covered with (maybe?) multi-colored puffed rice that was probably the neatest-looking part. The last picture is of the hallway in the temple area – very different from the attached hotel area (to be shown tomorrow).

As a side note, the monks were very nice and seemed quite happy. They ate in a different area and while we couldn’t see them, they were almost always laughing and joking. One older one teased Andrew repeatedly for how “cute” he looked in his yukata because it didn’t go all the way down his legs like it’s supposed to.

Thanks for reading our ramblings! More on Koyasan tomorrow!


2 Responses to “Day 10 of Japan: Koyasan and Okunoin”

Thank you so much for all your writings and photos! It must be hard to keep up as you are traveling. Of all the places you’ve described so far, I would most of all like to see Koyasan — your description of the lantern temple Torodo is esepcially moving to me (lanterns that have been burning continuously for a thousand years! The timelessness of that image is so very peaceful and soothing to me….)

meg - June 1st, 2009 at 4:30 pm

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