Japan: Koyasan and Okunoin (mausoleum of Kūkai)

This morning saw us checking out of our hotel in Osaka.  Strangely, for having spent the night in a western bed, Nick and I both didn’t have a restful sleep.  Perhaps we really will invest in a futon for back home.  We had a pretty unhurried morning, again, having already packed the previous night as we knew we were moving the next morning.

Breakfast this morning was a buffet at the hotel but for the most part there was traditional Japanese fare.  Some of our tour group succumbed to the lure of the western cereal and toast, but Nick and I both still felt pretty happy with the Japanese fare.  We had egg omelettes, a small filet of fish (mackerel), miso, rice and other such foods.  They also had some fresh fruit on offer so we partook of the oranges and pineapple as well.

We checked out at 8:15am and made our way to the train station to make our way to Koyasan. The trip took about 1.5 hours and was our first long train trip with no reserved seating.  When we switched trains, Nick and I had to stand for the final 30 minutes.  The very last leg of the journey was done via cable car and this took us up a very steep incline.  I did feel my ears pop as we were coming up.

Koyasan was first settled in 819 by the monk Kukai.  Kōyasan is known as the world headquarters of the Kōyasan Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism.  The original monastery has grown into the town of Koya where there are now over 120 temples, many of which offer lodging to pilgrims.

We are staying at one such Shingon monastery tonight.  Once we arrived, we dropped off our luggage and went to explore the town after a quick tonkatsu lunch.  One of the major sites in this area is the Okunoin (mausoleum of Kūkai) which is also adjacent to the largest graveyard in Japan.  Besides the mausoleum, there were a great many gravestones nestles in amongst absolutely towering cedar trees.

Koya is possibly one of the most verdant and lush areas I have ever seen in my life, much less Japan.  There is an astounding variety of bright colours both in the leaves and in the flowers of the local flora. Its been absolutely beautiful to stay here after the crazy crush that was Osaka.  I very much prefer this quieter life to the jostling and stresses of the cities.

We also had a look at several of the larger shrines in the area, including the headquarters of the Shingon Buddhist sect.

After this, we headed back to the monastery to check in properly and have a little rest before dinner.

To my immense surprise, the monastery we are staying at offers WiFi to its guests which is why I am able to post an update tonight.  Nick and I had a room without much of a view, though some of our other tour members managed to score rooms with a view of the gardens which are lovely. The monks and novices work very hard here in the monastery, maintaining the shrine and the gardens.  There is a very nice zen garden in the front of the monastery as well.

Before dinner, we were invited to join the monks for a meditation session in their main shrine area.  Nick and I partook, but I think I am not a very spiritual person. Aside from falling asleep sitting up a couple of times, I managed not very much by way of meditation.  To be fair, it was a full 40 minutes of sitting still and embarrassingly listening to my stomach growling.  By nature, I am an incredibly fidgety person so I wasn’t able to take much away from this session.  Based on this experience I will be skipping the 6am prayer session tomorrow with zero regrets.

Dinner though, was amazing.  According to the tenants of Buddhism, you should not partake in the flesh of any animal.  So the monks painstakingly prepare meals of only seasonal fruits and vegetables and present them in an absolutely magnificent way.  Now, for the moment, you will have to take my word for this as neither Nick nor I had the foresight to bring our phones with us.  We went directly from meditation to the dinner sitting and so weren’t able to take a picture of this sensational meal. We will be begging photos from our other tour mates though so hopefully I will be able to update this before too long.

From memory there were about 9 different dishes to try. There were the obligatory rice and miso, also two different tofu dishes.  One a traditional firm tofu with a sweet soy sauce and the other was a sponge-like freeze-dried tofu which soaked up the sweet broth it was placed in. There was a rice flour cake with a bead of wasabi to eat it with as well as different vegetable tempura to taste. There was a soba noodle dish as well which seemed to be in a broth of some sort with rice crackers (or something similar) thrown into the bowl to make them soft.  Another dish contained bamboo shoots and other seasonal vegetables.  There was also a dessert of a firm agar jelly with peach and apricot pieces added.

After dinner, there wasn’t really much left to do but take a bath in the gender segregated onsen and again, this onsen was even fancier then the previous two we had visited.  This one almost felt like a spa experience at home (minus the massages and crazy prices) and it was incredibly relaxing for our sore feet to soak in the hot waters.

After this, we turned in for the night as, even though we were skipping the morning prayers, we do have an early start to make our way on to Kyoto for the final part of our Intrepid Tour.


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